Robert F. Willson, Jr. (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5119

SOURCE: “Julius Caesar: The Forum Scene as Historic Play-within,” in Shakespeare Yearbook, Vol. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 14-27.

[In the following essay, Willson analyzes Act 3, scene 1 of Julius Caesar—in which Brutus and Antony give their funeral orations to Caesar—and examines Shakespeare's use of metadramatic allusions to the theater and the play's theme of ‘destructive passion.’]

That Brutus, Cassius, and the other conspirators see themselves as actors in a precedent-setting, historical drama is revealed in Cassius' exclamation following the assassination:

How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown.


To amplify Cassius' prophetic claim, Brutus echoes the sentiment in a characteristically philosophical observation:

How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport,
That now on Pompey's basis lies along
No worthier than the dust!


Such theatrical metaphors are of course common to Shakespearean tragic poetry. Hamlet affirms his “motive and … cue for passion” by adapting a play to sting his uncle's conscience. Lear speaks of “this great stage of fools” onto which crying infants are ushered at their birth. Macbeth compares his Herod's role to that of a “poor player” uttering an hour's worth of bombast, then disappearing forever. And Cleopatra, like Cassius glimpsing the future, shrinks from the vision of “Some squeaking Cleopatra who will boy my greatness / I' th' posture of a whore.”

These reflexive references to the world as stage are so numerous in the canon that they are generally regarded as commonplaces.3 Yet such allusions often serve as essential guides to reading the significance of pivotal scenes in major plays. We quickly grasp the clue that Hamlet's mousetrap, for instance, reveals as much about the hero's inability to distinguish between reality and illusion as it does about Claudius' guilt. Obsessed with the moral impact of Gonzago on Claudius (and, lest we forget, on Gertrude), Hamlet dispels the theatrical vision by directing Lucianus to speak his lines and stop making “damnable faces” (3.2.253). This overmanaging of the actors by Hamlet exposes his uncontrollable impulse to force his uncle's confession—and Gertrude's conversion. (The God-playing syndrome is further revealed in his prayer-scene decision not to send Claudius' apparently repentant soul to hell.) During the play-within, moreover, the prompting of Lucianus, nephew to the king, signifies Hamlet's desire to “prompt” action by a created image of himself. His threats are Lucianus', yet they are empty without attendant action. Hamlet's inability to distinguish between the actor's art and real-world performance becomes the quicksand of inaction into which he sinks ever deeper. This reading of the play-within's function suggests that Shakespeare may have had in mind more than just a convenient poetic lexicon when he employed theatrical allusion.4 We comprehend Hamlet's state of mind through terminology that places him in a staged or performed “life.”

Shakespeare also employs the theatrical metaphor as a means of representing Macbeth's ambitious career. By killing Duncan and seizing the crown, the thane succeeds in usurping a king's role. But what Shakespeare clarifies through subsequent events (i.e., the murder of Banquo; of Lady Macduff and her children) is that this performer has degenerated into a “poor player,” a common Elizabethan label for inept actor. His ineptitude—a term that carries both professional and moral significance—is dramatized in the banquet scene (3.4), where Macbeth's fear-inspired ranting parallels histrionic excess. (As Emrys Jones sees it, Banquo's appearance has caused Macbeth to behave like an actor unable to recall his lines.5 ) The hurried departure of the Scottish lords can be likened to the embarrassed escape of an...

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audience no longer willing to tolerate this bombastic amateur. When Macbeth later characterizes himself as just such a failure, he stresses the briefness of his “stage” career, his departure for oblivion. Without an heir to succeed him, Macbeth cannot even console himself with the thought of lineal immortality. This cutting-off can likewise be appreciated with reference to playhouse practice: As an unsuccessful player, he cannot expect to have even an apprentice take his place.

The preeminence of the world-as-stage metaphor in creating a context for interpreting prominent sequences in Shakespeare's tragedies gives readers a useful decoding language. We can reasonably assume, for instance, that Shakespeare, like many of his contemporaries, recognized how successful politicians fashioned public roles which enhanced their ability to lead. This is not to say that he readily applauded histrionic talent without the stuff of character necessary to its legitimate use—in monarchs or actors, one might say. Richard Gloucester's pious impersonation (3.7), so energetically stage-managed by Buckingham, demonstrates that acting has its despotic, demonic side as well. It is the Thespian and Satanic art. Richard's appearance, “aloft, between two bishops,” serves only as a disguise, not as a true representation of the Christian prince. We witness the apparently monkish Richard refusing to assume the yoke of worldly power, characterizing himself as unfit for the part:

Yet so much is my poverty of spirit,
So mighty and so many my defects,
That I would rather hide me from my greatness—


This poor player speaks truer than he knows, as Shakespeare ironically exposes the pretender's nature in the language of rehearsal. When the citizens-as-audience threaten to undertake violent steps to keep the “illegitimate” princes from the throne, Richard relents and agrees to

… buckle Fortune on my back,
To bear her burthen, whe'er I will or no,
I must have patience to endure the load;


The allusion to Hercules underscores Richard's claim that the world is about to be dropped on his shoulders. However, the vision of a hunchback so burdened undercuts Richard's assumed heroic identity, transforming the god-like image into a seriocomic one. Buckingham and Richard's power play becomes an afterpiece, a parody of the coronation ritual.6

By contrast Prince Hal proves highly skilled as an actor, one seasoned in the art of fitting the role to the occasion. In 1 Henry IV, the impromptu tavern-house play-within starring Falstaff and Hal (2.4.376ff.) demonstrates the hero's knack for both assuming his father's identity (thus foreshadowing his ready assumption of the crown) and using the interlude as a means of moral instruction. On the other hand, Falstaff shows himself woefully unable to jettison his monstrous ego in taking on either the princely or kingly part. What starts as a playful, time-wasting game for fat Jack grows into a serious morality play in which his fate is sealed. Abruptly ending the scene in his guise as player-king, Hal, in answer to his “son's” plea not to banish him, declares “I do, I will.” This chilling period closes the performance and allows us to see that Hal clearly perceives the distinction between counterfeiting and true action.

Later, in Henry V, Hal's public and private performances—the tennis ball episode, the outwitting and arrest of Cambridge, Grey, and Scroop—reveal his awareness of the value of decorous acting in the consolidating and exercising of power. The political and personal identities (see the doctrine of the king's two bodies) meet as one in him, a ruler without rival on the imperial stage. If Richard is all show, obliterating the monarch's spiritual body, Hal epitomizes the happy union of show and substance, of the illusionary and real. In Hamlet's words, he suits “the action to the word, the word to the action” and does not “o'erstep … the modesty of nature.” Richard ends ranting in “King Cambyses' vein.”


With these theatrical or stage-as-world guides in mind, we turn to the assassination and Forum scenes in Julius Caesar equipped to understand the characters and events in terms that are central to Shakespeare's political theme. That is, the “lofty scene” described by Cassius changed the course of history and thereby influenced the lives of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. We need only remember the Elizabethans' ancestral identification with Rome through the legend of Britain's founding by Brutus, great-grandson of Aeneas. On the world stage, moreover, the assassination of Julius Caesar deserved the title of tragedy—and so the playwright dubbed it—through association with the murder of Jesus Christ. That such blows against God should be acted over in succeeding ages demonstrates how imperfectly their lessons (about social and political disruption) have been learned. Thus to return to the event is to take up old material, “a moldy tale,” and once again rehearse its meaning, grapple with its complexities. Whether Shakespeare's additional motive was to warn his contemporaries about the danger of popular rebellion or to present the case for republicanism can never be finally known.7 But by evaluating the assassination and Forum scenes from the perspective of theatrical metaphor, we may better appreciate the playwright's habit of interpreting events and characters by employing familiar analogues from his and the audience's playhouse experience.8

What strikes one immediately in assessing the dynamics of the conspiracy is the parallel between this group of plotters and a company of actors—even “sharers,” if one adopts the language of the profession. If indeed these men are actors of a “lofty scene,” it is probable that Shakespeare invites us to compare them to a cry of players. The term “sharers” takes on even greater weight if we think of its professional connotation: All the “actors” are presumed to be “full adventurers” in the enterprise of assassination.9 And while the conspirators appear to number no more than seven or eight, they could be said to approximate the size of a company of fellows.10 These men appeal to Brutus (at Cassius' urging) to lead them in their scheme to rid Rome of its despot, regarding him as chief actor and manager of the enterprise. Given this analogue, we in the audience might well be inclined to judge Brutus' skill at both playing and managing in the company's behalf.

In this connection, we are given some early clues that Brutus is wanting. He must be persuaded by Cassius and the others that he is capable of performing the lead part. When the conspirators meet for rehearsal, moreover, Brutus refuses to allow the swearing of an oath, by which the company would have become incorporated:

No, not an oath! If not the face of men,
The sufferance of our souls, the time's abuse—
If these be motives weak, break off betimes,
So let high-sighted tyranny rage on,
Till each man drop by lottery.


Such bold defiance of convention sounds noble, but it fails to recognize the vital importance of—and the word is critical here—incorporating the plotters. Without such a bond, each man would then be free to choose his own course following the performance of their historic interlude. Just as the players must swear an oath to undertake the business of the company, so must the conspirator-actors agree to share equally the profit and expense of their deed.11 By failing to secure such an oath, as well as refusing to kill Antony with Caesar, Brutus shows himself ill-equipped to lead the company. Even though he later invites the assassins to bathe their hands in Casesar's blood (3.1.105-10), Brutus fails to comprehend that this outward badge of unity means nothing without the bond of an oath. Indeed, so attired the actors do appear as the bloody butchers of “a savage spectacle” to the waiting audience of citizens.

Though he aspires to act out his philosophical beliefs, then, Brutus emerges from the assassination scene a poor player. To further reinforce this impression, Shakespeare has him agree to allow Antony to deliver the eulogy over fallen Caesar. He assents despite the wise prompting of Cassius:

[Aside to Brutus] You know not what you do. Do not consent
That Antony speak in his funeral.
Know you how much the people may be mov'd
By that which he will utter.


Brutus here is the actor who must be reminded of his proper role by a stage manager aware of the whole plot and the rhetorical power of another actor.

So Antony, at least in Cassius' eyes, qualifies as an interloper, an outsider who because of his recognized loyalty to Caesar threatens the unity of the group. But Shakespeare may have intended a more particularized identity for Antony, one related to the acting troupe analogue. He could be regarded as the hired man brought in by Brutus for a special production.12 This analogue helps us to fully comprehend the significance of the coup Antony effects. Not a member of the company of sharers, he is engaged to perform a minor role; in the Forum scene, however, Antony usurps the central role—which Brutus intended to play—in the historical drama. Cassius senses the danger, but Brutus assures him that the citizens will believe him when he declares that Antony speaks only by their permission: “It shall advantage more than do us wrong.” A key to successful performing (as the playwright knew) is gauging the reaction of one's audience, something Brutus lacks the insight to do.

Had Antony been invited to join the conspiracy in its early stages, his state of mind and behavior might have been different (though Shakespeare affords no evidence that he possessed the motive or intellectual capacity to bring about the fall of the tyrant). Had he been murdered with Caesar, the plotters could then have used the occasion of their deaths to characterize Antony and Casesar as equally ambitious. But by giving him a role in the upcoming ceremonial interlude, Brutus has made possible the transformation of the scene from solemn funeral to outraged revolt, of the kind we witness in 2 Henry VI. The actor who leads this rebellion proves to be one who, in Hamlet's words, “out-herods Herod”:

Blood and destruction shall be so in use,
And dreadful objects so familiar,
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quartered with the hands of war.


This ranting vow is delivered over the body of dead Caesar; on the Forum stage, Antony seeks to “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.”

With Antony's assurance to Caesar's spirit that he will prove an apt instrument of revenge (see Hamlet's promise to his father's spirit), our attention is directed to the public play about to be performed and away from the murder itself. Indeed, Shakespeare depicts the assassination as something of a backstage event. True, we have witnessed the butchery, experienced the horror of the bloody spectacle. Yet the characters of Brutus and Cassius have preoccupied us from the beginning. In reality, Caesar dead emerges as a more significant force than Caesar alive.13 So the assassination per se might be described as a kind of rehearsal, the true tragedy—Rome's dislocation?—waiting to be played out before the populace. Act Three, scene two depicts events that determine the course of the rebellion, the fate of those republican ideals Brutus holds so dear. Given Antony's “private” eulogy in 3.1, especially his “Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood!,” we are led to expect not a funeral rite but a revenge tragedy.


When that play begins, Brutus seems to arrest the plebeians' full attention. Yet he commences the ceremony by dividing the company, sending Cassius with a group of citizens to whom he will explain the meaning of their act. That this too is an unwise decision is later confirmed when Brutus chooses to leave the stage while Antony speaks. For the moment, however, he appears to be in control. Spoken in prose, Brutus' explanation affirms his noble motive, his love of Rome and freedom. The best skills of an academic rhetorician are here exhibited: parallelism (“As Caesar lov'd me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it”); antithesis (“Not that I lov'd Caesar less, but that I lov'd Rome more”); repetition (“Believe me for mine honor, and have respect to mine honor, that you may believe”); and the inevitable rhetorical question (“Who is here so base that he would be a bondman?”). There is even an artful pause while Brutus waits for those who are offended to accuse him: “None, Brutus, none.” With this reply the self-confident speaker concludes that all is settled and that the murder has been duly justified.

But what we recognize and the plebeians seem to sense is that Brutus' speech, especially its artful structure and reasoned tone, suits better the ears of Senators than those of rude mechanicals. Rendered in dispassionate prose, the justification exposes the speaker's blindness to the reality of human emotion. He does not touch their hearts but is satisfied instead that he has lectured to them on the consequences of ambition. Thus Brutus demonstrates beyond doubt that his proper forum is the hall, not the public stage. Antony entering with Caesar's gashed body in his arms need not speak a word to begin eroding the foundation of Brutus' argument.

Yet when Brutus leaves the Forum, he is acclaimed the new Caesar, an irony that the naive conspirator appears not to discern. While he has acted to save the people from bondage, they respond by urging the kingly part on him. How ignorant he is of the motives of those he seeks to serve! And his departure from the stage at this critical point highlights yet another irony, this one recalling the theatrical analogue. Brutus believes he has spoken the crucial lines of the scene, leaving Antony to perform the simple elegaic rite of burying Caesar. We realize instead that Brutus has delivered only the prologue or chorus and is unaware that he merely prepares the way for the main action and actor, who is now free to speak his vengeful mind without prompting. The change of role from Caesar's successor to prologue-speaker underscores how ill-suited Brutus is to perform the public show necessary to the consolidation of power.

On the other hand, Antony exhibits a gift for playing that stirs his hearers to sudden, violent action. He uses the same rhetorical tools as Brutus, but he makes heavier use of repetition and personal reminiscence (see especially “You all did see that on Lupercal …,” 95-7) than did his rival. He repeats two words—“honorable” and “ambitious”—so adeptly that he soon has his audience wondering whether Caesar or Brutus was truly ambitious. More calculatingly, Antony employs a pun to register a shocking picture of the horrible deed in his audience's mind: “O judgment! thou [art] fled to brutish beasts.” Now the conspirators are no longer honorable men but destructive animals, a transformation achieved solely by Antony's trenchant poetic art. Like Brutus, Antony also pauses, but not to hear an answer to his rhetorical question. His pause is dramatic, an opportunity to choke back tears while his words sink in (105-7). During this pause one of the hearers (2 Pleb.) delivers possibly the baldest understatement in the canon: “If thou consider rightly the matter, Caesar has had great wrong.”

Thus aroused, the audience stands ready to change its mind about Caesar and the assassination.14 Antony need only produce the will, an ideal actor/politician's prop, to win the plebeians utterly to his side. But before he will consent to read it (here he reminds us of Richard Gloucester or Iago in his gesture of calculated restraint), Antony descends from the pulpit with the body in his arms. This masterstroke takes our breath away, but it also breaks the imaginary plane between stage and audience. Antony joins the mechanicals as if he were one of them and not a player in the historical drama. More important, as the plebeians make a ring around him and the body, Antony succeeds in creating another stage, with victim and revenger at its center. Now he retells the tragedy of the assassination, pointing to the wounds and identifying the conspirators who made them. Brutus' “most unkindest cut” recalls the “brutish beasts” pun of his earlier remarks and reinforces the moral that in striking down Caesar, Brutus has murdered his own father. Beside pointing to the unnaturalness of such a deed, Antony reminds his auditors that Caesar's fall was theirs: “Then I, and you, and all of us fell down, / Whilst bloody treason flourished over us” (191-2). How vividly this statement echoes Brutus' earlier claim that he was forced to act for fear of tyranny pressing down the citizenry! Shakespeare's irony here intimates that both men embrace their own selfish or sophistic motives for acting, ignoring all the while the good of Rome.

But Antony's inspired touch of scene-painting—traitors covered with innocent blood—confirms his ingenuity as an actor and poet. He has won the audience to his cause in a coup de théâtre that blatantly violates the end of playing. Witnesses of a tragedy should leave the playhouse purged of their emotions; instead these hearers are roused to destructive fury by Antony's words. By further associating Caesar's fate with Pompey's—“Even at the base of Pompey's statue / (Which all the while ran blood) great Caesar fell”—Antony seems to justify the citizens' lust for revenge, chronicling the act of treachery as if it were part of a Fall of Princes interlude. The mantle and wounds are assigned choric identities, moreover; they are voices crying against the inhumanity and unnaturalness of the sacrifice. Antony remembers that Caesar first wore the mantle on the day he overcame the Nervii, a tribe renowned for its pagan fierceness. The implied comparison between the barbarous Nervii and the assassins is obvious. But Antony's anecdote also underscores his resourcefulness: How did he manage to dredge up such an apparently trivial detail? Had he in fact been waiting for just such a moment to spring this memory on unsuspecting ears? Similarly, his opportunism prompts him to catalogue the wounds made by each conspirator, even though he was not a witness to the killing. How can he or we be sure of these attributions? The question goes unasked and unanswered, of course, because the citizens have been trapped in the web of deep-seated emotion aroused by the speaker. Each rent in the robe qualifies as a piece of evidence of the conspirators' cruelty.

At just the right moment, Antony pulls off the mangled robe (196) to reveal the “marred” body of Caesar himself. While Brutus had represented this event as a funeral, the somber interring of their dead leader's bones, Antony seizes the occasion (as Richard did the funeral of Henry VI) to transform the ceremony into a trial. The body, uncovered and gory, issues as the main piece of evidence in that trial of “honorable” men. (Surely Shakespeare wants his audience to associate Caesar's murder with the sacrifice of Christ, whose savaged body revealed the extent of barbarous destructiveness.15) When the First Plebeian exclaims “O piteous spectacle!” we recognize that Antony has succeeded brilliantly in creating his play-within-the-play by concurrently exceeding the bounds of art. Shakespeare's playhouse audience's attitude toward him should be shifting—away from admiration toward suspicion—with the increasing hyperbole of his words and actions. Not Caesar's but his own cause motivates him now.

This suspicion of Antony's motives is further confirmed with his disclaimer of oratorical or histrionic powers of speech (210-30). He only speaks “right on,” assuring all that he lacks the persuasive skills of Brutus. By now this claim is as hollow and ironic as his affirmation that all the conspirators are “honorable men.” (We likewise suspect none of the ingenuousness that attends remarks about his “rude speech” by Othello.) In place of his ill-trained speech, Caesar's wounds have mouths to rouse Romans to mutiny. This corporeal allusion refocuses the citizens' eyes on the body; their immediate reaction is to seek out Brutus' house and burn it down. The wheel has turned suddenly and decisively, and Antony assumes the central role once reserved for Brutus. It is now “most noble Antony!” whom the plebeians urge one another to heed.

As the crowning achievement of his performance Antony once again reminds the citizens of Caesar's will. This prop, like Caesar's muffled body, arrests the hearers' attention, even though it too seems suspiciously like a sham. Such a document is cited by Plutarch, but Shakespeare introduces it at a time convenient to Antony's political purposes. By possessing it he substantiates his claim of being Caesar's successor, the executor of his will. Knowing as well that nothing can stop the mob from trampling Caesar's “private arbors, and newplanted orchards,” Antony simply lends legal status to civil disobedience. Caesar's will has become the will of the people, a dangerous principle for the state to condone. But Antony too now holds the script of events in his hands, symbolizing his possession of rule. The actor and avenging prince have merged in one identity, a reality confirmed by Antony's ubi sunt-like question: “When comes such another?” As the auditors spill out from the Forum stage into the Roman streets, Ambition and Revenge assume the mantle of leadership.


To underscore the representation of the Forum scene as play-within on the theme of destructive passion, Shakespeare creates an after-piece or coda depicting the murder of Cinna the poet. The aroused mob ignores this victim's disclaimer that he is not a conspirator, electing instead to tear apart their prey for his bad verses. The scene's didactic purpose seems to be to illustrate the consequences of disorder, the threat to innocent citizens caught in the tide of fury. But the murder of a poet also symbolizes Antony's willful distortion of the end of art. Murdering poets, as Orpheus was dismembered by the Bacchic women, signals the destruction of those charged with chronicling, not making, history. Coming as it does after the Forum interlude, the episode reveals just how completely Antony's actions have perverted the stage/state function. Not only is the play broken, but so is the playwright. The motif is comparable to the beating-of-messengers device in Antony and Cleopatra, where such behavior reveals the same blindness.

What began as stately ritual—a noble funeral—in Julius Caesar has degenerated into rule by a headless mob killing innocents along with combatants. Antony has shown just how potentially threatening events in the public playhouse can be to the public safety, a point which seems to suit well the moral goal of Julius Caesar. By shaping the scene to his own purposes—which prove both vengeful and ambitious—Antony has ravaged the very setting in which historical tragedy carries meaning and purpose. Likewise, the poet/playwright's artistic voice has been stilled by men whose emotions have not been purged but roused to perform yet more horrible deeds.16 Both Brutus and Antony have in the end failed as actors, one for his inability to understand his audience, the other for manipulating its psyche only too well. In judging both leaders and actors, Shakespeare seems to say, we must look to that Aristotelian balance or “mean” so vital to the proper ruler. (Antony will soon confront such a mediated personality in the figure of Octavius, true inheritor of Julius Caesar's spirit.) Failing such a leader, the state suffers the consequences; Rome falls as the central victim of the tragedy. That men are prone to ignore this dramatic and historical truth is then aptly confirmed by Cassius' memorable comment:

                    How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown.


  1. All quotations are from G. Blakemore Evans, ed., The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  2. That theatrical reenactment of the murder was a commonplace Shakespeare and his audience readily recognized is hinted at in Polonius' self-satisfied pronouncement: “I did enact Julius Caesar: I was kill'd i' the Capitol; Brutus killed me” (Ham. 3.2.108). E. K. Chambers cites the performance of “a storie of Pompey” at Court on Twelfth Night of 1581 (The Elizabethan Stage 4:158). This play may have depicted Caesar as Pompey's nemesis. Henslowe indentifies a play called “seser and pompie” on November 8, 1594, as well ‘as “the 2 pte of sesore” on 18 June 1595 (see Henslowe's Diary, ed. W. W. Greg, 1:20). These plays do not survive, however.

  3. James L. Calderwood has written extensively on the subject of metadrama. See his Metadrama in Shakespeare's Henriad (Berkeley: U of California P, 1979) and To Be and Not To Be: Negation and Metadrama in ‘Hamlet’ (New York: Columbia UP, 1983). See as well Wendy Coppedge Sanford, Theater as Metaphor in Hamlet (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1967).

  4. Maynard Mack speaks directly to the linguistic and dramatic implications of the word “acting” in his “The World of Hamlet,Yale Review 41 (1952): 502-23.

  5. Scenic Form in Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1971), 226. I have suggested that Macbeth's banquet scene fits the play-within formula as well, Macbeth failing to maintain his mask of kingship and the order of the state. See my “Macbeth: The Banquet Scene as Frustrated Play Within,” Shakespeare Jahrbuch (Weimar) 114 (1978): 107-14. S. Viswanathan explores the related idea of clothing imagery and its relationship to the theatrical metaphor in “Macbeth in the Tiring House: The Clothes and Actor Motifs in the Play,” Anglia 100 (1982): 18-35.

  6. The concept of the citizens as reluctant audience is established earlier in this scene when Buckingham informs Richard of his failed attempt to coax from them a proclamation of kingship. In answer to Buckingham's “God save Richard, England's royal king!” they “spake not a word.” (See R3 3.7.5-41.) J. L. Styan argues convincingly that this scene, along with others in which Richard assumes roles, “tests … the theatre's power of elasticity: how far can an audience be persuaded by mere convention to lend itself to villainy?” See Drama, Stage and Audience (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1975), 176-7.

  7. One is inclined to believe that Shakespeare's consistent belief is that rebellion invites chaos, which can only result in blind destruction of existing order. Stephen Greenblatt's list of instances of self-fashioning includes a description of the “alien” (#4) which seems to apply to Shakespearean rioters. See Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980), 9.

  8. G. E. Bentley, The Profession of Player in Shakespeare's Time, 1590-1642 (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1984), 25.

  9. The term “adventurer” had a commercial connotation as early as the 1480s, when Henry VII established the Society of Merchant Adventurers. See OED.

  10. Ten sharers signed the debt contract of the Lord Admiral's men in 1598. See Bentley, 27.

  11. Bentley, 26.

  12. Though hired men performed a variety of services useful to the company—players, musicians, book holders or prompters, gatherers—those who acted were given unassigned roles in most productions. See Bentley, 68-112.

  13. Nicholas Brooke observes that “Caesar's arrogance and weakness are part of an insistent naturalism set against another order governed by storm and blood” (Shakespeare's Early Tragedies [London: Methuen, 1968], 145).

  14. The assassination was referred to in the 1587 edition of the Mirror for Magistrates, a collection of tragedies dramatized in the manner of Lydgate's rendering of Boccaccio's Falls of Princes.

  15. See T. S. Dorsch, ed. The Arden Julius Caesar (London: Methuen, 1961), xxxviii-xxxix.

  16. That Shakespeare had a clear sense of the purging purpose of tragedy is exhibited in Hamlet's speech to the players, 3.2.1-45. Antony's performance might be called “overdone” (26), leading the “judicious” to “grieve” (27).


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Last Updated on July 28, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 670

Julius Caesar

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.

Lynn de Gerenday (essay date 1974)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5397

SOURCE: “Play, Ritualization, and Ambivalence in Julius Caesar,” in Literature and Psychology, Vol. 1, November, 1974, pp. 24-33.

[In the following essay, de Gerenday explores the psychological and thematic significance of Brutus's ritualization of Caesar's murder, and the resulting ambiguity this produces in Julius Caesar.]

Indeed, it is a strange-disposed time:
But men may construe things after their fashions,
Clean from the purpose of the things themselves.

Cicero, Act I, scene iii

One of the frustrations of reading criticism on Julius Caesar is the extent to which we may be caught up in the critic's attempt to determine what attitude we should assume toward the play as a whole, and toward the character of Brutus in particular. This propensity for either/or interpretations; this need for a norm of heroism and villainy; this insistence that, in the words of one graduate student, lamenting the ambiguity of the main characters, “there's got to be a good guy, there's got to be,” violates the psychological insights of a “problem play” in which ambivalence is the norm, the meaning and the motivation. The way out of endless partisan speculation, which ignores L. C. Knight's observation that “human actuality is more important than any political abstraction,”1 is suggested by the central significance the drama of Brutus and Caesar held for Freud.

In Chapter VI of Interpretation of Dreams, Freud discovers, in the antithetical structure and meaning of Brutus' speech at the Forum, a model for his hostile and affectionate dream-thought, “As he had deserved well of science I built him a memorial; but as he was guilty of an evil wish … I annihilated him.” He concludes that he has been “playing the part of Brutus in the dream,” and goes on to recall that he “really did once play the part of Brutus” to the “Caesar” of his nephew whom he calls, “my tyrant.”2 It was this nephew who, according to Freud in a letter to his friend Fliess, March 10, 1897, “Determined, not only the neurotic side of all my friendships, but also their depth;” who was, Freud writes in Interpretation of Dreams, both his superior, against whom he had to learn to defend himself, and his inseparable friend, setting the pattern for Freud's future relationships:

My emotional life, has always insisted that I should have an intimate friend and a hated enemy. I have always been able to provide myself afresh with both, and it has not infrequently happened that the ideal situation of childhood has been so completely reproduced that friend and enemy have come together in a single individual—though not, of course, both at once or with constant oscillations, as may have been the case in my early childhood.3

Brutus' most rhetorical speech became a model for, and a clarification of, Freud's own dream-thought; the drama of Brutus and Caesar, a symbolic means to enact Freud's own conflicting emotions towards his nephew. What the play illuminated for Freud, and illuminates for now for us, is the nature of ambivalence, the way such formal devices as rhetoric and ceremony (reinforced by an emphasis on play-acting) bind and distance intense love and hostility from conscious expression.

Perhaps Brutus' most revealing speech is his soliloquy at the opening of the orchard scene, Act II, scene i. Brutus is alone, meditating; unable to sleep, unaware of the time of day, his precision of thought and energy is directed toward one resolution: the death of Caesar. In Act I, he has seemed a figure of indecision and distraction, “with himself at war, / Forget[ting] the shows of love to other men.” (italics mine) (I.ii.46-7) lacking “that quick spirit that is in Antony.” (29) He has withdrawn his “gentleness and show of love” (33-4) from Portia as he has from Cassius,

          Y' have urgently, Brutus,
Stole from my bed: and yesternight, at supper,
You suddenly arose, and walk'd about.
Musing and sighing, with your arms across;
You stared upon me with ungentle looks:
I urg'd you further; then you scatched your head,
And too impatiently stamp'd with your foot:
Yet I insisted, yet you answer'd not;
But with an angry wafture of your hand,
Gave sign for me to leave you …


She begs to know the cause of his grief, which “will not let you eat, nor talk, nor sleep;” (252) this “sick offence within [his] mind,” as Portia perceives, has led to his rejection of the “wholesome bed” of married love. It is this same “sick offence,” which Brutus has tried to deny before Cassius,

Into what dangers would you lead me, Cassius,
That you would have me seek into myself
For that which is not in me?


—after Cassius has “lamented” Brutus' lack of mirrors to turn his “hidden worthiness into your eye, / That you might see your shadow.” (57-8) In this image of the mirror and the shadow, and in Cassius' comparison of himself to a glass which will reveal to Brutus “That of yourself which you yet know not of,” (70) Shakespeare suggests the Elizabethan dramatic conception of the play as speculum, a mirror up to nature, a mirror which can reflect “false unreal shadows” as well as penetrate the “false appearance of things,” and “uncover deceit.”4 Cassius does not “whet” Brutus against Caesar, nor does he manipulate him (by clever words, appeals to heritage and forged letters) into an action which is totally alien to Brutus; although Cassius believes that these devices will “yield him ours,” (156) the first line of Brutus' soliloquy emphasizes that he has already determined that Caesar must die,

It must be by his death: and, for my part,
I know no personal cause to spurn at him,
But for the general. He would be crown'd:
How that might change his nature, there's the question:
It is the bright day that brings forth the adder;
And that craves wary walking. Crown him?—that;—
And then, I grant, we put a sting in him,
That at his will he may do danger with …


“It must be by his death”: a powerful resolution placed before all the “justifications,” suggesting the wish for Caesar's death existed before and beyond the intellectualized need for his death; Brutus must speculate on what Caesar might become in order to justify the killing, the fulfillment of his shadowy wish, to himself. As he continues, he attributes to Caesar what is true of his own flawed nobility: “Th' abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins / Remorse from power …”. (19) Mercy isolated from power—as Brutus assumes greater control and emerges as recognized leader of the conspiracy, as he stabs the man who once showed him the mercy of pardon, this “abuse” becomes central to the tragedy of his self-deception, central to the alienation from his own repressed emotion which thwarts his potentially integrative ideals.

Brutus cannot find this abuse true of Caesar in past or present action, and so he retreats into speculation once again in order to build his “reasons … full of good regard,” (III.i.224)

… to speak true of Caesar,
I have not known when his affections sway'd
More than his reason. But ’tis a common proof,
That lowliness is young ambition's ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;
But when he once attains the upmost round,
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks into the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend: so Caesar may;
Then, lest he may, prevent …


So, Caesar is not to be killed for specific acts of injustice and oppression, but for a projected image of what he might become.5 As the soliloquy ends, Brutus' use of language to create a private reality, isolated from existing reality, is dramatically revealed,

… And, since the quarrel
Will bear no colour for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus: that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities:
And therefore, think him as a serpent's egg,
Which, hatch'd, would, as his kind, grow mischievous;
And kill him in the shell.

(italics mine) (28-34)

Since the cause of rebellion has no excuse in “the thing he is,” Brutus must “Fashion it,” construct it, compose it: the mold is there in “these and these extremities”—blanks to be filled in later. Here is Brutus telling Brutus how he must think (“And therefore think him …”) in order to kill, in order to prevent his emotional knowledge of Caesar from interfering with an act he wishes to envision as impersonal, “for the general.” Here also, it might be added, is a scene of Shakespearean self-consciousness, an awareness of the playwright creating a reality through his words, composing a play, an action, potentially as ambiguous as that of Brutus.

As the scene progresses, Brutus continues to “compose,” and emerges in control of the action. His rhetorical appeal to the “virtue of our enterprise,” his attribution of honesty and virtue to “our cause,” dismisses Cassius' call for an oath; “do not stain / The even virtue of our enterprise … To think that or our cause or our performance / Did need an oath.” (132-6) The metaphor of drama, “our performance”, for the conspiracy is continued in his dismissal of Cassius' next suggestion, that the shrewd Antony be killed with Caesar,

Our course will seem too bloody, Caius Cassius,
To cut the head off, and then hack the limbs,—
Like wrath in death, and envy afterwards;
For Antony is but a limb of Caesar:
Let's be sacrificers but not butchers, Caius.
We all stand up against the spirit of Caesar;
And in the spirit of men there is no blood;
O, that we, then, could come by Caesar's spirit,
And not dismember Caesar! But, alas,
Caesar must bleed for it! And, gentle friends,
Let's kill him boldly, but not wrathfully;
Let's carve him as a dish fit for the gods,
Not hew him as a carcass for the hounds:
And let our hearts, as subtle masters do,
Stir up their servants to an act of rage,
And after seem to chide 'em. This shall make
Our purpose necessary, and not envious:
Which so appearing to the common eyes,
We shall be call'd purgers, not murderers.
And for Marc Antony, think not of him;
For he can do no more than Cassius' arm
When Caesar's head is off.


Images of fragmentation and dismemberment, repeated throughout, are concentrated in this speech as Caesar's body is separated from his spirit and broken in “necessary” sacrifice; thus, under Brutus' leadership, the planning becomes a question of style.6 We have experienced Brutus' creation of a reality to fit his resolution, his composition of a basic outline for action, his mastery of rhetoric which will reach its climax in the speech at the Forum; now, his drive to ritualize action becomes apparent. What the conspirators must kill is the bloodless spirit of Caesar, the Caesar who would be king and worshipped as a deity; the killing is to be a ritual, a formal sacrifice, the “tragedy of Julius Caesar,” enacted in classical style (noble, impersonal, inevitable, purgative).7 It is to be “A piece of work that will make sick men whole,” but which must be accomplished by making some that are whole, sick. (327-8) The irony is, that even within the structural device of the full circle, nothing, no one, is made whole; Rome is not redeemed. The images of fragmentation, as Holland observes, suggest the split within the conspirators in their attempt to isolate the connotations of their act.8 We are made conscious of this act as “act” through Brutus' attention to seeming and appearance; his direction,

Good gentlemen, look fresh and merrily;
Let not our looks put on our purposes;
But bear it as our Roman actors do,
With untired spirits and formal constancy …


is far removed from the disorder within, which he earlier compared to “The nature of an insurrection.” (69)

When Brutus directs the conspiracy to sacrifice, not butchery, when his language stylizes the murder into a dish carved for the gods, he is inhibiting any awareness of aggression; or, rather, he is attempting to consciously prohibit the element of aggression—“Or else were this a savage spectable.” (III.i.223) “Hostility is not admitted as such, but masquerades as ceremonial.”9 The mind must trick itself in disassociation from action: “hearts, as subtle masters do, / Stir up their servants to an act of rage, / And after seem to chide 'em.” So Bolingbroke with Exton after Richard II's death:

Exton. From your own mouth, my lord, did I this deed.
Bolingbroke. They love not poison what do poison need,
Nor do I thee: though I did wish him dead,
I hate the murderer, love him murdered.

(Richard II.

Bolingbroke's emotional ambivalence toward Richard (his mingled distrust and admiration) is separated from action in order that his death wish against his king might be fulfilled, and rejoined after the murder in a manifestation of remorse. Brutus' remorse has anticipated the murder in the melancholic dejection (loss of capacity to love, inhibition of energy, refusal of nourishment, sleeplessness) which Cassius and Portia have observed.10 Now, the energy he has withdrawn into himself must strike out again, at Caesar; loving the man, as he tells Antony, even as he strikes down the spirit Caesar em-bodies.

In his examination of ritual in Julius Caesar, Brents Stirling suggests that, “as the impersonal member of a conspiracy motivated largely by personal ends, [Brutus] sought in a complex way to resolve his contradiction by depersonalizing, ritualizing, the means.”11 Although my thesis would maintain that Brutus' “impersonality” is itself a formal device to ward off the anxiety of his ambivalent attachment to Caesar,12 Stirling's discussion of Antony's function as master of counter-ritual is illuminating. “Given / To sports, to wildness, and much company,” (II.i.188-9) a lover of plays, (I.ii.203) Antony bears a firmly rooted love for Caesar; Caesar, in turn, has chosen Antony to take his place, in a ritualized action, with Calphurnia: he is to “leave no ceremony out” of the “holy chase” which Caesar hopes will turn barrenness to fertility. (I.ii.6-11) In Act III, Antony uses language to effect transformation: to turn Brutus' creation of a dish carved for the gods back into the bloody carcass hewn for hounds.

After the assassination, Brutus' aggression betrays itself through ritual; he instructs his fellow actors to stoop and bathe their hands in Caesar's blood, the blood he has usually denied in his imagery. The act unifies the conspiracy: each has stabbed Caesar, each has washed himself in Caesar's blood. Brutus insists on their mutual recognition of each other in their responsibility for their action, (“let no man abide this deed, / But we the doers,”) (III.i.94-5) but he is clearly the “lead,” the “Soul of Rome,” the inheritor of the republican tradition. He stands, blood dripping from his arms, envisioning with Cassius the great theatricality of what they have just done,

Cassius … How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!
Brutus. How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport,
That now on Pompey's basis lies along
No worthier than the dust!


but Antony enters to undercut this metaphor of play, to counter and break their potential community-in-ritual; their arms, which were to be seen as a symbolic bond become, through Antony's language, “purpled” as they “do reek and smoke” with the blood of a victim. (158) Brutus continues to split act from emotion through language as he argues that it is only the conspirators' appearance, their hands (servants stirred to an act of rage) which are bloody; their hearts are full of pity for “the general wrong of Rome— / As fire drives out fire, so pity pity—.” (170-1) Antony insists upon another sense of what has happened, repeatedly bringing the conceptualized, overformalized ritual of Brutus back to the bloody reality of the butchered Caesar. The unity in conspiracy which Brutus' language and ritual have created is systematically broken by Antony as he shakes hands with, and names, the members of the “knot” individually; in his speech at the Forum, he names each stroke, each wound of Caesar.13 The conspirators are “hunters,” “Sign'd in [Caesar's] spoil, and crimson'd in his lethe” (206). Rather than a sacrificial offering, as he is in Brutus' words, Caesar is transformed into a deer struck down, a benevolent, martyred ruler who loved his people, loved Brutus above all; “the men that gave their country liberty” in Cassius' vision, become traitors through the vision Antony presents to the people.

This theme of double interpretation is recurrent; summarized in the words of Cicero which I have used as an epigraph, the possibility of misinterpretation, of fashioning things according to an individual reality is present for the characters, the audience and the critic. The soothsayer is both prophet and “dreamer.” (I.i.24) The omens are “instruments of fear and warning / Unto some monstrous state” which may be the inflated role of Caesar, as Cassius believes, (I.iii.70-8) or the “domestic fury and fierce civil strife … blood and destruction … Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge, / With Ate by his side come hot from hell,” which Antony chillingly invokes (III.i.263, 5;270-1). The augury of the beast without a heart warns Caesar not to go forth, but in his own interpretation, warns him that would be cowardice. The image of a heartless beast also suggests remorse disjoined from power: words, ideas, conceptions isolated from emotion. Calpurnia's dream is given alternate interpretations, both of which prove true: the murderers so press for tinctures to take on the power of Caesar, but through the assassination ironically establish Caesarism, thus empowering the spirit they sought to destroy. Brutus' underestimation of Antony, which causes him to dismiss Cassius' clear-sighted misgivings, conspires with his guilt and desire for punishment to doom the conspiracy; assuming his role as “composer” too confidently, Brutus gives Antony lines (“You shall not … And say you … and you shall speak”) which are twisted back against him. (III.i.244)14

The themes of “doubleness” of interpretation, of the splitting of name from person, idea from emotion, are unified in the elusive figure of Caesar. We glimpse him through various images as a god and a colossus, a raging lion and a serpent's egg, “the noblest man / That ever lived in the tide of times” (III.i.255-6) and a “vile … thing” illuminated by a Rome which has become “trash … rubbish … offal.” (I.iii.108-11) His absolute power is magnified by Cassius and Brutus in order that he may be made responsible for the turmoil within themselves;15 he exists in created images within his own mind and the minds of others.16 He deifies himself, but even Cassius comments that “he would not be a wolf, / But that he sees the Romans are but sheep. / He were no lion, were not Romans hinds.” (I.iii.104-6) Paradoxically, we glimpse his humanity at the moments he labors to act in accordance with his name as public office,

I rather tell thee what it is to be fear'd
Than what I fear,—for always I am Caesar.
Come in on my right hand, for this ear is deaf … 

(I.ii.211-3; italics mine)

          I fear him not.
Yet if my name were liable to fear,
I do not know the man I should avoid
So soon as that spare Cassius.


When Calpurnia seeks to persuade him to stay home, she allows him to project his own fear and say it is hers, “call it my fear / That keeps you in the house, and not your own.” (II.ii.50-1) Caesar's name does not permit Caesar to fear; his actions are a process of ritualizing a social role. When Casca describes Caesar's refusal of the crown, the play-metaphor is used to catch the tone of the performance, “If the rag-tag people did not clap him and hiss him, according as he pleased and displeased them, as they used to do the players in the theatre, I am no true man.” (I.ii.257-61) Caesar refusing the crown three times, Caesar plucking open his doublet and offering his throat to the crowd—this is Caesar the play-actor, exploiting the passions of the mob17 just as Antony and, in another sense, Brutus, play-act after the assassination.

In his sense of his name as both part of his personality, a portion of his soul,18and as disembodied spirit allied with a rich heritage, Brutus may be identified with Caesar. In the second half of the play, he uses the third person with increasing frequency; his speech at the Forum is characterized by a rhetorical aristocracy equal to Caesar's. Brutus shares a love for words with Antony, the ardent lover of plays, but their use and style of language differ radically, as revealed in their exchange in Act V,

Brutus. Words before blows:—is it so, countrymen?
Octavius. Not that we love words better, as you do.
Brutus. Good words are better than bad strokes, Octavius.
Antony. In your bad strokes, Brutus, you give good words;
Witness the hole you made in Caesar's heart,
Crying “Long live! hail, Caesar!”
Cassius. Antony,
The posture of your blows are yet unknown;
But for your words, they rob the Hybla bees,
And leave them honeyless.
Antony. Not stingless too.
Brutus. O, yes, and soundless, too;
For you have stolen their buzzing, Antony,
And very wisely threat before you sting.
Antony. Villains, you did not so, when your vile daggers
Hack'd one another in the sides of Caesar …


Antony uses words to manipulate the crowd, to get nearer, to descend into their midst; Brutus uses words to ritualize, to distance, to create a private reality isolated from that of the crowd—and isolate from Cassius and the other characters as well. The danger of isolating names from the individual, personal identity is demonstrated in the death of the poet Cinna, torn to pieces for his bad verses because he bears the same name as a conspirator (Cinna's death also dramatizes the uselessness of trying to disassociate oneself from “conspiracies” in a world which judges by appearances); the danger of isolating ambivalence from consciousness is the dramatic and psychological center of Brutus' tragedy.

Caesar becomes more powerful after his death, even as “the dead father becomes stronger than the living one had been.”19 By the law of talion, his murder can be expiated only by the deaths of his murderers, just as Pompey was revenged by Caesar's death at the foot of his statue, within his “theatre.” Caesar lives on in the guilt of the conspirators, projected into an expectation of, and desire for punishment which is present through much of the play in Brutus self-destructive course of action. Erikson's comments on the preparations of ritual in the child at “the play age” seem illuminating here: Erikson observes that,

[the child's] themes … are often dominated by usurpation and impersonation of adult roles; and I would nominate for the principal inner estrangement which finds expression, aggravation or resolution in play, the sense of guilt … an inescapable sense of self-condemnation which does not even wait for the phantasied deed to be actually committed; or if committed, to be known to others; or if known to others, to be punished by them.20

The analogy with Erikson's description recalls both the complexity of Brutus' ambivalence, grounded not only in love and hostility but also in ambition and identification, and my earlier reference to the melancholia which precedes the assassination. After the murder of a figure of primal authority, certain ceremonies involving appeasement of the victim and acts of expiation and purification, are observed by the murderer. Freud concluded from these observances that “the impulses which they express toward an enemy are not solely hostile ones. They are also manifestations of remorse, of admiration for the enemy, and of a bad conscience for having killed him.”21—observances derive from an emotional ambivalence. This “bad conscience” takes the form of the ghost of Caesar, ambiguous and elusive of definition as the living Caesar, part of the images in the minds of others; but, the ghost also suggests the unwanted, repudiated parts of Brutus which have broken through his attempts to deny them.

Brutus' identification with Caesar has been implied through their formal rhetoric and use of the third person; their confusion of name with identity defined by abstract conceptions of kingship and honor; the lack of generativity in their marriages (Calphurnia is barren; Portia stabs herself in the thigh and swallows coals in a perverted parody of sexuality); their sense of drama and ceremony. Like Caesar, Brutus' “wisdom seems consumed in confidence” (II.ii.49) as his emphasis on his own honor, honesty, purity of action and intent increases in the last acts. Impersonal moral virtues, isolated from ambivalent emotions, have become attached to the intense sense of anxiety surrounding those emotions. Brutus' insistence on purity, as a defense against an awareness of his impurity, distances him from the reality outside of himself. This is painfully apparent in his scene with Cassius in Act IV: he reveals his own inner contradictions even as he accuses Cassius, “When love begins to sicken and decay, / It useth an enforcéd ceremony.” (IV.ii.20-1) He demands of Cassius what cannot be given except through the “corruption” of which he accuses him; Brutus compulsively attempts to resist any ambivalent interpretation of Caesar's murder by excessive condemnation of Cassius,

Remember March, the ides of March remember:
Did not great Julius bleed for justice' sake?
What villain touch'd his body, that did stab,
And not for justice? What, shall one of us,
That struck the foremost man of all this world
But for supporting robbers, shall be now
Contaminate our fingers with base bribes …


Both his repressed love and admiration for Caesar, and his ideal of impersonal action are balanced in this speech, but the balance is momentary and threatening; retreating into self-righteousness, he continues to bait Cassius.

Caesar feared Cassius partly because “He is a great observer, and he looks / Quite through the deeds of men: he loves no plays.” (I.ii.202-3) Cassius' energetic directness perceives the split between outward appearance and shows, and the inner man. Even at the height of passion, he achieves emotional insight; when he bares his breast and challenges Brutus to enact with his dagger what he has already done with his words, he penetrates to the Brutus beneath “enforcéd ceremony,”

Strike, as thou didst at Caesar; for, I know,
When thou didst hate him worst, thou lovedst him better
Than ever thou lovedst Cassius.


Earlier, when Brutus responds to his direct statement, “Most noble brother, you have done me wrong” with the evasive outburst, “Judge me, you gods! wrong I mine enemies? / And if not so, how should I wrong a brother?”, Cassius sees through his use of rhetoric and formality: “Brutus, this sober form of yours hides wrongs.” (IV.ii.37-40) In one line, Cassius has expressed what Brutus has feared to acknowledge throughout the play.

Brutus' reaction to the poet may imply a reaction to himself; while Cassius laughs at the old man's command to “Love, and be friends, as two such men should be,” and reasons with Brutus to “Bear with him … 'tis his fashion,” Brutus angrily responds, “I'll know his humour, when he knows his time. / What should the wars do with these jigging fools?' (130:134-6) This is ironic, for Brutus is “out of time” with all around him, from the citizens of Rome to his fellow conspirator. In contrast to Cassius' observation of the realities of war and practical knowledge of appropriate action, Brutus may seem a “jigging fool” caught in his own rhetoric. War, for him, is a ritualization of his need to be defeated and punished, his need to fail as a reparation for his aggression against Caesar. When Cassius suggests what would have undoubtably proven successful strategy, Brutus twice dismisses him and brushes him aside with his famous speech, “There is a tide in the affairs of men …” (IV.iii.217) But this is neither the time, nor the tide; Brutus' speech is placed against the direct emotions of the scene with Cassius, whose clear, pragmatic vision must be overruled in order that the tragedy of Brutus be completed as he hastens toward his own destruction. Isolated in his own composition of reality, Brutus cannot understand another.

Like Macbeth upon hearing of his Lady's suicide, Brutus must deny his painful feeling of loss, as he must later postpone his grief for Cassius, for reasons other than the “morale” of his troops; in order to act, he must prevent emotion from breaking loose. This is in contrast to Cassius, whose pragmatism is balanced by emotional directness, part of “that rash humor which my mother gave me;” (118) he has changed from the would-be manipulator of Brutus in Act I to a friend subservient to Brutus in his dependence on his recognition and love. Cassius can mourn Portia and cry out at Cicero's death; Brutus must caution him twice to “Speak no more of her … No more, I pray you.” (157;165) His haste is not toward practical action,22 but toward death,

… Brutus' tongue
Hath almost ended his life's history:
Night hangs upon mine eyes; my bones would rest.
That have but labour'd to attain this hour.
… Caesar, now be still:
I kill'd not thee with half so good a will.

(V.v.39-42; 50-1)

—the final, unambiguous resolution of a painful ambivalence.

“True ritualization represents,” according to Erikson, “a creative formalization which avoids both impulsive excess and overly compulsive self-restriction.”23 This formalization involves an “order perceived and yet also participated in;” but there is always the danger, he warns, of “over-formalization, perfectionism, and empty ceremonialism, not to speak of the neurotic ‘ritual’ marked by total isolation. …”24 The tragedy of Brutus, then, is a tragedy of failed ritual: a potentially integrative, adaptive, creative ego prevented from realization through the use of ritualistic elements as defense against ambivalence.


Toward the end of his report to Cassius and Brutus in Act I, scene ii, Casca adds the news that “Marullus and Flavius, for pulling scarfs off Caesar's images, are put to silence;” (285-6) scene one had closed with this extremely resonant instruction, “disrobe the images / If you do find them deck's with ceremonies.” (67-8) The stripping away of images may in one sense uncover latent meaning, buried emotion; in another sense, it may “kill” the play. In order to prevent the latter possibility, image must be sounded for what lies beneath, not stripped away as surface meaning. Our consciousness must rejoin that which has been separated (action and emotion, ritual and primitive aggression, spirit and person, ideal and impulse) while at the same time admitting that our resolutions are at best ambiguous; the warning of Cicero a comment upon our attempt.


  1. Leonard Dean, “‘Julius Caesar’ and Modern Criticism” in Julius Caesar, Signet ed. (New York, 1963), p. 191.

  2. Sigmund Freud, Interpretation of Dreams (New York, 1966) pp. 549-50.

  3. Ibid. pp. 520-21.

  4. Kathleen Williams, Spenser's Faerie Queene: The World of Glass (London, 1966), p. 94.

  5. Gordon Ross Smith, “Brutus, Virtue, and Will,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, X (1959).

    Smith has suggested that anxiety about the loss of Caesar's love in the process of ascent might be informing this image.

  6. Sigurd Burckhardt, Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton, 1968), p. 7.

    Burckhardt points this out in his seductive essay, “How Not to Murder Caesar.”

  7. Ibid. p. 8.

  8. Norman Holland, Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare, p. 340.

  9. Freud, Totem and Taboo (New York, 1950), p. 49.

  10. Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” in General Psychological Theory (New York, 1963), 1. 165.

  11. Brents Stirling, “‘Or Else were This a Savage Spectacle,”’ in Shakespeare: The Tragedies (Englewood Cliffs, 1964), p. 43.

  12. See Seimon O. Lesser, Fiction and the Unconscious (New York, 1957) on the function of form as devices managing expressive content ready to break loose and cause anxiety if not ordered.

  13. Stirling, passim.

  14. Plutarch, selection from The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans in Signet Shakespeare.

  15. Freud, Totem and Taboo, p. 50.

  16. Ernest Schanzer, “The Problem of ‘Julius Caesar”’ in Signet Shakespeare.

  17. Ibid. p. 220.

  18. Freud, Totem and Taboo, p. 112.

  19. Ibid. p. 143.

  20. Erik Erikson. “The Ontogeny of Ritualization in Man:” presented to the Royal Society in June, 1965 for the symposium “Ritualization in Animals and Man,” Proceedings of the Royal Society.

  21. Freud, Totem and Taboo, p. 143.

  22. Stirling suggests “practical action” as Brutus' goal in “Brutus and the Death of Portia,” Shakespeare Quarterly, X (1959).

  23. Erikson, “The Ontogeny of Ritualization,” p. 341.

  24. Ibid. p. 345.

John W. Velz (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7879

SOURCE: “Orator and Imperator in Julius Caesar: Style and the Process of Roman History,” in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. XV, 1982, pp. 55-75.

[In the following essay, Velz delineates the combined influence of oratory and command on Roman history in Julius Caesar.]

Among the sigla of Roman life in Julius Caesar, two, oratory and the role of the imperator, have been seen by commentators only fractionally.1 Discussion of oratory has focused on the Forum speeches of Act III, Scene ii without cognizance of the numerous other formal discourses, primarily deliberative, that dominate the first half of the play and are distantly echoed in the epideictic oratory of Act V.2 Discussion of “Caesarism” has focused on Caesar himself—pompous, fallible, illeistic3—without recognition that his imperiousness is conveyed by his grammatical mood as well as by his references to himself, and that others in the play, especially Octavius in Act V, also speak his imperial-imperious style.

It is important to see oratory and the imperial mode as and where they are in Julius Caesar because oratory is the energizing force behind the process of history in the play, while the Imperium is the telos of that process. The roles of orator and imperator are linked at the moral core of Julius Caesar; it may be that Shakespeare thought of them as near the center of Romanitas itself. In any case, the movement toward the Imperium begins in Julius Caesar in the turbulence that oratory creates. An analysis of the play can show that in Shakespeare's conception the fall of the Republic is very much a matter of style.


In his oration, Antony denigrates Brutus with the label “orator.” The orator, he implies, is the moral opposite of the “plain blunt man” that speaks “right on,” spontaneously, without assistance from the devious art of rhetoric (III.ii.219-32).4 That Antony is manifesting the putative deviousness of the orator in denying that he has it, and that his claims for his own character and that of Brutus are both nearly exactly the opposite of the truth as the audience sees it—these are among the finest ironies in the play.5 Antony, the “Asiatic” stylist, lays claim to the “Attic” style that Brutus has just spoken6 and accuses Brutus of having spoken as he himself is now speaking, Asiatically. Antony's prototypical orator manipulates his audience with calculated sophistry to “ruffle up” their spirits (230); the phrase is an apt, if colloquial, translation of Cicero's permoveo (De Oratore II.185 et passim). The “Asiatik” style of the historical Marcus Antonius' speeches, florid and emotive, was calculated to make “uprore among the people,” as Sir Thomas North put it;7 Shakespeare conveys this style admirably in Antony's vivid blank verse. Brutus' prose speech which precedes is regularly contrasted by critics with Antony's, and its Attic style—the result of Shakespeare's mistaken inference from Plutarch that Marcus Brutus spoke as he wrote8—is indeed quite different from Antony's. But Brutus' oration is no less artificial, no less contrived to move the hearer.9 Aristotle would have termed Brutus' oration a failure in that it produces results contrary to those intended.10 Brutus means his speech as a forensic defense of the conspirators, but the Plebeians take it as a deliberative political speech—and as it were the speech forms the hearers into a Brutan political party. As a forensic speaker, then, Brutus is a failure, but there is no doubt about the power of his rhetoric—the many critics who have said that Brutus' oration is flat compared to Antony's have ignored the extent to which it stirs the Plebeians: they offer him a triumphal procession, a statue with his ancestors, and the role of Caesar (III.ii.50-54). Antony's superiority over Brutus lies as much in his place in the sequence of speakers as in his oratorical method.11

Brutus adopts what Shakespeare regularly portrays in the play as the orator's stance: sophistic ad hominem argument and equally sophistic rhetorical questions:

Who is here so base, that would be a bondman? If any, speak; for him have I offended.


The rhetorical device is what Aristotle calls a spurious enthymeme, a fallacious syllogism in which the listener is to infer one of the premises.12 Brutus iterates the formula to make a compelling tricolon:

Who is here so rude, that would not be a Roman? If any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so vile, that will not love his country? If any, speak; for him have I offended. I pause for a reply.


Antony is right to see the sophistry of the orator in Brutus. But he himself uses exactly this technique, the combination of ad hominem innuendo with rhetorical questions:

You all did love him once, not without cause;
What cause withholds you then to mourn for him?
O judgment, thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason.


Antony is persistent with emotionally charged questions: “Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?” (92); “Was this ambition?” (99); “'Tis good you know not that you are his heirs; / For if you should, O, what would come of it?” (147-48); “You will compel me then to read the will?” (159). The differences, then—and they are real enough—between Antony's oration and Brutus' bespeak the persons involved; the underlying similarities, equally real, evoke the role these two men play successively.13

Others in Julius Caesar assume the orator's role as well; Brutus and Antony are, in fact, anticipated by several speakers. The play is scarcely under way when we encounter the first of them, Marullus, whose harangue to the Plebeians in the street attacks their new affection for Caesar by juxtaposing it with their old affection for his adversary Pompey—exactly as Antony will later attack the crowd's new loyalty to Brutus by juxtaposing it with their old loyalty to his adversary Caesar. Marullus speaks only for twenty-five lines, but he stirs his hearers deeply as Brutus and Antony will later stir theirs. After Flavius has added a second brief peroratio to Marullus', he exclaims at their success, providing as he does so another translation of Cicero's permoveo: “See where their basest mettle be not mov'd” (I.i.61). This permotio, the moving of mettle, has been achieved by just the techniques Brutus and Antony will use in Act III, ad hominem argument and rhetorical questions. Marullus implies quite unsubtly that the Plebeians are blocks and stones, worse than senseless things, if they do not reject Caesar in their grief for Pompey and his just-defeated sons. And of the twelve sentences in the speech, eight are rhetorical questions:

And do you now put on your best attire?
And do you now cull out a holiday?
And do you now strew flowers in his way,
That comes in triumph over Pompey's blood?


Though its impassioned verse foreshadows the style of Antony's Forum speech, Marullus' oration is more like Brutus' in the elaborate formulaic balance it works from, for example the isocolon quoted just above. Marullus' oration also anticipates Brutus' in its merely temporary effectiveness, for the Plebeians, who “vanish tongue-tied in their guiltiness” (62) when Marullus has “mov'd” them, regroup only a few lines later to follow Caesar to the marketplace, ready to be moved by the next orator they hear.

In the marketplace they hear Cicero (in Greek), and possibly Antony, certainly Caesar (but not with oratorical polish); we have only Casca's jaundiced account. But the crowd is excited, to judge from the offstage noise; and Antony, at least, is formulaic, as we hear in the tricolon of shouts14 in response to his ritualized three offers of the crown to Caesar and Caesar's ritualized charade of “put[ting] it by with the back of his hand, thus” (I.ii.218-19). Even this early in Julius Caesar we may feel that Rome is a world of speeches to crowds and that the course of Rome's history is a record of what effect speeches had.

While this oratory is in progress offstage,15 we hear another oration, Cassius' effective monologue which persuades Brutus toward the conspiracy.16 Cassius asks Brutus, his audience of one, the sort of highly charged rhetorical questions we have heard from Marullus and will later hear from Brutus and Antony:

Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that “Caesar”?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Now in the names of all the gods at once,
Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed,
That he is grown so great?
When went there by an age, since the great flood,
But it was fam'd with more than with one man?
When could they say, till now, that talk'd of Rome,
That her wide walks encompass'd but one man?


The iteration is powerful; just after Cassius asks these climactic questions in his argumentatio Brutus, as it were, capitulates. Though Brutus “For this present, / … would not … / Be any further mov'd,” he promises to “find a time / Both meet to hear and answer such high things” (163-68). Cassius uses the other identifying device of the orator as well: he makes a marked ad hominem appeal. The argument takes two forms. First there is flattery combined with non sequitur: if you could see yourself as I see you, he suggests, you would see “hidden worthiness” (56) and “honour” (85-90); because you now with my help see these virtues in yourself, you will join me against Caesar. The second prong of the ad hominem attack is directed against Caesar in the well-known narratio which has earned for Cassius the epithet “envious” among modern interpreters. Actually it is Casca whom Mark Antony calls “envious” (III.ii.177), and later Antony speaks of all the conspirators but Brutus as equally tainted with envy (V.v.69-70). Cassius may envy Caesar when he seeks to make the colossus a weak swimmer and petulant bed patient,17 but it seems obvious that he speaks more from the sophist's head than from the angry man's heart in undercutting Caesar's divinity for Brutus. He himself later speaks of the methods he has employed with Brutus as specious and contrived, methods by which he himself would not be moved if Brutus were to employ them with him:

Well, Brutus, thou art noble; yet I see
Thy honourable mettle may be wrought
From that it is dispos'd: therefore 'tis meet
That noble minds keep ever with their likes;
For who so firm that cannot be seduc'd?
Caesar doth bear me hard; but he loves Brutus.
If I were Brutus now, and he were Cassius,
He should not humour me.


Cassius follows this shrewd use of the orator's arts to seduce a firm man with an analogous approach to Casca. He begins the attack in I.ii with a skillful brief application of orator's rhetoric when Casca describes Caesar's seizure in the marketplace.

Brutus. 'Tis very like; he hath the falling-sickness.
Cassius. No, Caesar hath it not; but you, and I,
And honest Casca, we have the falling-sickness.


Here the unexpected antanaclasis shocks the two listeners, and the tricolon places both Brutus and Casca where Cassius is politically and morally; that Shakespeare thought of this forced political allegory as an orator's device becomes plain when we find Antony echoing it precisely in his funeral oration:

                              … great Caesar fell.
O, what a fall was there, my countrymen!
Then I, and you, and all of us fell down,
Whilst bloody treason flourish'd over us.


That Cassius and Antony use the same antanaclasis, the same tricolon, and analogous moralizing of physical falls by Caesar to precisely opposite political ends says a great deal about the levelling effect of the orator's role in Julius Caesar; the role seemingly subsumes both partisan politics and individual character (Cassius and Antony are not only political opponents; they are utterly unlike temperamentally, according to Caesar in his famous characterization of Cassius). We must not, of course, make too simple an assumption about the levelling effect of oratory in the play: the energies of Julius Caesar allow for utterance that springs spontaneously from the character it reflects—one need only think of the language of the quarrel scene in Act IV. But from the podium speech reflects the type as much as it does the individual. The possibilities for irony are correspondingly great.

Cassius renews his approach to Casca in the storm of I.iii., delivering what amounts to a deliberative oration to an audience of one as in I.ii.,18 though his method is slightly different, as he has a different audience. The rhetorical questions we have heard before and will hear again are here, though not in comparable numbers:

And why should Caesar be a tyrant then?


                    But, O grief,
Where hast thou led me?


The second of these is as much an apostrophe as a rhetorical question, Cassius' affectation of allowing Casca to overhear language he addresses to another;19 we may compare Antony's apostrophe to judgment in his oration (III.ii.106-07), and more immediately we may compare Cassius' other formulaic apostrophes in this same oration:

Therein [in suicide], ye gods, you make the weak most strong;
Therein, ye gods, you tyrants do defeat.


The formulaic repetition here will recall Marullus' anaphoristic “And do you now …” and Brutus' “If any, speak. …” Cassius goes on in a solemn tetracolon as if musing, or perhaps continuing his address to the gods—in any case treating his audience as if it were not an audience:

Nor stony tower, nor walls of beaten brass,
Nor airless dungeon nor strong links of iron,
Can be retentive to the strength of spirit;
But life, being weary of these worldly bars,
Never lacks power to dismiss itself.
If I know this, know all the world besides,
That part of tyranny that I do bear
I can shake off at pleasure.


And cynical Casca, who has been shaken by the hyperbolic storm, is now permotus, hastening to join an audience from which he has as it were been excluded. He completes Cassius' last line with an impulsive “So can I.” But Cassius strategically ignores this interruption as he has ignored Brutus' interruption earlier,20 forging on, as if Casca were not there, in exclamations about Caesar as wolf and lion and Romans as sheep and hinds and about Rome as straw and trash, rubbish, offal, and base matter, until, pretending to recall that he has an audience, he uses the same ad hominem innuendo that Brutus will use later in his oration in the Forum:

                    I, perhaps, speak this
Before a willing bondman …


(Compare “Who is here so base, that would be a bondman?” [III.ii.30].) The effect of this orator's device on Casca is precisely the one that Brutus will obtain with the Plebeians, impulsive commitment.

You speak to Casca, and to such a man
That is no fleering tell-tale. Hold, my hand:
Be factious for redress of all these griefs,
And I will set this foot of mine as far
As who goes furthest.


The commitment won, Cassius instantly drops his oratorical mode and falls into an informative, conversational style:

There's a bargain made.
Now know you, Casca, I have mov'd already
Some certain of the noblest-minded Romans
To undergo with me an enterprise. …


Casca has been enrolled in the conspiracy, added to the list of men Cassius has “mov'd” in a fashion Shakespeare thought quintessentially Roman.

We have heard one short oration and two long ones in the three scenes of Act I; in his usual fashion Shakespeare has crowded the early scenes of a play with the motif he is interested in. This motif, the role of the orator and its special style, recurs throughout the first three acts of the play, though not all instances need be analyzed in the detail devoted to Act I.

Brutus, who has been persuaded into the conspiracy by oratorical means, ironically enough speaks a miniature oration as he seizes control of that conspiracy from Cassius in the orchard scene; in the “No, not an oath” speech in Act II, Scene i, Brutus employs the insistent formal repetition, the rhetorical questions, and the ad hominem argument we have come to recognize as peculiar to oratory in this play:

But if these, [their motives]
As I am sure they do, bear fire enough
To kindle cowards and to steel with valour
The melting spirits of women, then, countrymen,
What need we any spur but our own cause
To prick us to redress? what other bond
Than secret Romans, that have spoke the word,
And will not palter? and what other oath
Than honesty to honesty engag'd,
That this shall be, or we will fall for it?


Brutus' audience of conspirators moves swiftly to his position about this and the other questions at issue in the orchard.

Then the tables are turned, so to speak, when Portia addresses her husband persuasively. She plays a role like the one Cassius had played in Act I—but this time the speaker pleads to be admitted, not to admit. To win Brutus, Portia uses the devices of an orator, including anecdotal narratio (“yesternight at supper …” II.i.238 ff.), ad hominem argument (“If it be no more, / Portia is Brutus' harlot, not his wife” 286-87), and rhetorical questions arranged in a climactic tricolon:

Within the bond of marriage, tell me, Brutus,
Is it excepted I should know no secrets
That appertain to you? Am I your self
But, as it were, in sort or limitation,
To keep with you at meals, comfort your bed,
And talk to you sometimes? Dwell I but in the suburbs
Of your good pleasure?


Portia understands the arts of the orator perfectly, and she succeeds admirably as she employs them in an entirely nonpublic context: much moved, Brutus admits her to the conspiracy. A mark of the centrality of oratory in Shakespeare's Rome is this adaptation of its devices to private discourse. We have already seen Cassius use them in confidential conversations with two Romans and we have seen Brutus use them in the most private of gatherings; now Portia in nightdress uses the rhetoric of the Forum to address her husband about their domestic life. The orator and his linguistic world have power to enter even the penetralia of a Roman household. Oratory is very nearly conterminous with Romanitas at this point in the play. Portia, in pleading to be regarded as a high-minded Roman, falls into the stance of an orator.

Ironically enough, Act II, Scene ii, in which Caesar is twice persuaded against his will, first by Calphurnia and then by Decius Brutus, is less oratorical than several other scenes of persuasion. Calphurnia is too distraught to contrive her utterance in the orator's formalities, and Decius Brutus adopts the stance of the confidential advisor rather than that of the public pleader, though at one point he indulges in a rhetorical question of strong ad hominem thrust:

If Caesar hide himself, shall they not whisper,
“Lo, Caesar is afraid”?


The hypothetical whisper, with its blatant ad hominem appeal, is couched in an emphatic half line in mid speech.

The next occasion on which oratory persuades is after the assassination when Antony's servant sways Brutus with carefully rehearsed formulaic rhetoric:

Thus, Brutus, did my master bid me kneel;
Thus did Mark Antony bid me fall down;
Say I love Brutus, and I honour him;
Say I fear'd Caesar, honour'd him, and lov'd him.

(III.i.123-24, 128-29)21

Antony follows the subdued eloquence of this prologue with an epideictic performance that in its contrived flamboyance prepares us for the theatrics of his funeral oration in the next scene. Apostrophe serves Antony's purpose here with the conspirators as it served Cassius' purpose with Casca in Act I, Scene iii. Ignoring his audience, he addresses Caesar's corpse in rhetorical questions:

O mighty Caesar! dost thou lie so low?
Are all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils,
Shrunk to this little measure? Fare thee well.


Then he abruptly acknowledges that he has an audience and just as promptly offers them his life, as Brutus will do to the Plebeians somewhat less theatrically at the end of his oration in the Forum. After a ritual handclasp with each of the conspirators, he returns to his “private” communion with Caesar's body, pouring out apostrophe after apostrophe until Cassius is forced to interrupt with questions that decidedly are not rhetorical:

I blame you not for praising Caesar so;
But what compact mean you to have with us?
Will you be prick'd in number of our friends,
Or shall we on, and not depend on you?


Antony suavely claims to have been distracted from the public occasion by his private grief, “sway'd from the point by looking down on Caesar” (219). In this pretense he anticipates the pretense in his ostensibly artless funeral oration that he must pause to recover his composure:

                                                  Bear with me.
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.


It may seem ironically involuted to us that Antony is using oratorical manipulation in Act III, Scene i to gain the right to practice more oratorical manipulation in Act III, Scene ii. But this is the sort of play Julius Caesar is, a play in which oratory opens doors. The great orations of Act III, Scene ii follow, a climax to the motif of permotio in the play. The power of oratory to move people, the basest mettle and the most exalted alike, has been shown repeatedly. The terms mov'd and move appear a total of thirteen times in the play; in all cases but one the sense is “stirred emotionally”; in nine cases the sense is of oratorical permotio. Now, late in the third act, we see the potency of oratory hyperbolized as Antony's Plebeians make their violent exeunt from the Forum and, their spirits still ruffled up, impulsively and frantically murder a passerby moments later.22


Oratory is nearly everywhere in the first half of Julius Caesar, but for all practical purposes Caesar himself is absent from the list of characters who play the orator's role in the action; we do not actually see him persuading others, and we may well ask what this means in the moral symbolism of the play. It is true that Caesar asks rhetorical questions in Act II, Scene ii:

What can be avoided
Whose end is purpos'd by the mighty gods?


          Shall Caesar send a lie?
Have I in conquest stretch'd mine arm so far,
To be afeard to tell greybeards the truth?


His stance, however, here and elsewhere, is not persuasive but declarative, not manipulative but pontifical. Of the eighteen sentences Caesar speaks in his first appearance in Act I, Scene ii, eleven (including all of the first six) are imperatives.

Speak. Caesar is turn'd to hear.
Set on, and leave no ceremony out.
Set him before me; let me see his face.
He is a dreamer. Let us leave him. Pass.

Antony's response to one of Caesar's earliest imperatives is to define the role of imperator:

                                        I shall remember:
When Caesar says, “Do this,” it is perform'd.


Caesar speaks a dozen more imperatives in Act II, Scene ii.

Shakespeare chose an appropriate style for a man whose authority stemmed from a military career.23 Julius Caesar had been given the honorific “Imperator” by his legions in Spain.24 In a real sense the play is about Caesar's attempt to convert this unofficial military title into an official political one.25 He is, as it were, bringing a military mode of speech into a political world, where oratory is a more normative mode than command: we can virtually hear the tone of the commanding officer in his speeches. When Caesar is not being imperative, he is likely to be declarative, even emphatically so:

… I was constant Cimber should be banish'd,
And constant do remain to keep him so.


The cause is in my will: I will not come;
That is enough to satisfy the Senate.


Caesar may place himself outside the world of the orator linguistically, but he is more closely linked to that world than he realizes, because it is oratory and resulting permotio that makes and unmakes the imperator in Shakespeare's Rome. We need only hear the crowd with ruffled-up spirits shouting after Brutus' oration, “Let him be Caesar” (III.ii.52) to see that this is so. We hear and see that ruffled-up crowd throughout the first three acts of the play, endorsing once a Pompey, now a Caesar, next a Brutus, finally an Antony. Had Caesar been less the imperator and more the orator he might have profited. He makes the mistake of adopting the imperative mood, the imperative cast of mind, before he has the Imperium in his grasp; and he falls when oratory gathers the conspiracy against him. It is indicative that just before his death Caesar expresses contempt for those who can be moved by the pleader's art; he boasts hubristically that he lies beyond its power and beyond the need to practice it:

I could be well mov'd, if I were as you;
If I could pray to move, prayers would move me;(26)
But I am constant as the northern star. …


This is a rhetoric of power already attained, not a rhetoric of power in the making—Caesar's very syntax suggests his hubris. Caesar is not a star, of course,27 but a man vulnerable like all others, and in a sense he can be said to die at the hands of rhetoric. His first assailant, Casca, and his last, Brutus, both have before our eyes been moved by the orator's arts to kill him. It is therefore sadly ironic, as it is entirely characteristic, that he should die with an imperative on his lips: “Then fall Caesar!” (III.i.77). This last imperative is directed inward, but the dying voice is recognizably the voice Caesar has lived by.28

Though Caesar is a striking figure, he does not stand entirely alone in his imperiousness any more than Brutus and Antony stand alone in their oratorical sophistry. No one replicates his style identically—Caesar's voice is finally inimitable—but others echo his imperative mode, significantly when they are feeling delight in their power.

Near the end of Act I, Scene iii, Cassius is fully in command of the nascent conspiracy; he has successfully wooed both Brutus and Casca with persuasive oratory and is feeling his power as he orders Cinna (and Casca) about in an imperious manner and an imperative style:

Am I not stay'd for? Tell me.
Cinna. Yes, you are.
O Cassius, if you could
But win the noble Brutus to our party—
Cass. Be you content. Good Cinna, take this paper,
And look you lay it in the praetor's chair,
Where Brutus may but find it; and throw this
In at his window; set this up with wax
Upon old Brutus' statue: all this done,
Repair to Pompey's porch, where you shall find us.
.....That done, repair to Pompey's theatre. [Exit Cinna.]
Come, Casca. …


Caesar would not have asserted himself so breathlessly, so officiously; but we may nevertheless feel here that Shakespeare is replicating at a lesser level (and therefore intensifying) Caesar's characteristic style.29 The difference between Cassius and Caesar stylistically is the difference between the leader of an ad hoc conspiracy and the commander of legions.

Much later Antony, feeling the power that has accrued to him from his funeral oration, orders Lepidus about in Act IV, Scene i in a way that reminds us of Cassius in the storm:

          … Lepidus, go you to Caesar's house;
Fetch the will hither, and we shall determine
How to cut off some charge in legacies.


In this scene Antony also asserts himself over a more substantial colleague in Octavius. We feel the imperiousness in his patronizing dismissal of Octavius' defense of Lepidus and in his authoritative tone:

                    Do not talk of him [Lepidus]
But as a property. And now, Octavius,
Listen great things. Brutus and Cassius
Are levying powers; we must straight make head.
Therefore let our alliance be combin'd,
Our best friends made, our means stretch'd;
And let us presently go sit in council,
How covert matters may be best disclos'd,
And open perils surest answered.


Something of the busy officiousness that appeared in Cassius' bustle in Act I, Scene iii is conveyed by Antony's shift here from one subject to another in mid speech: “And now, Octavius. …” Antony will attempt an imperious manner with Octavius again in Act V, but—significantly—to much lesser effect, as will appear.

To make servants of one's peers, ordering them to fetch and carry, is to shadow the role of imperator. In Cassius' and Antony's commands to Cinna and Lepidus we hear an approximation of the tone of Caesar's voice on his first entrance; everyone around him must be at his orders:

Caesar. Calphurnia.
Calphurnia. Here, my lord.
Caesar. Stand you directly in Antonius' way
When he doth run his course. Antonius.
Antony. Caesar, my lord?
Caesar. Forget not, in your speed, Antonius,
To touch Calphurnia …


In light of such imperiousness and its reflection in a Cassius or an Antony, we may find special meaning in Brutus' gentle benevolence to his servant, Lucius—for example at II.i.229-30 and at IV.iii.258-71. Lucius is not in Plutarch; Shakespeare may have created him to show the contrast between Brutus and those around him who would be imperator, if they could.

It is Octavius, of course, who will become “Imperator” in fact as well as in intention, and we might expect to hear Caesar's style in his speeches. It is there, indeed, especially in Act V, Scene i, when he first asserts his authority over Antony. Antony tries ordering him about as he has ordered Lepidus about:

Octavius, lead your battle softly on
Upon the left hand of the even field.


But Octavius responds with an even more imperious tone, abruptly Caesarian:

Upon the right hand I. Keep thou(30) the left.


Antony's response is almost plaintive, while Octavius presses his advantage with a most Caesarian assertion:

Ant. Why do you cross me in this exigent?
Oct. I do not cross you; but I will do so.(31)

We may compare Caesar's

The cause is in my will: I will not come.


Something of Caesar's tone is also discernible in the assurance of “I was not born to die on Brutus' sword” (V.i.58) and of “If you dare fight today, come to the field; / If not, when you have stomachs” (65-66).

Octavius is the mediate beneficiary of Antony's oration in the Forum, and he knows how to guard his benefice; he promptly incorporates Brutus' army in his own after the Battle of Philippi and is making plans as the play ends to divide up the spoils of victory. Not blind, as Caesar was, to his situation, Octavius woos support even as he is asserting his authority. In a brief but morally significant ritual, Strato, a synecdoche for “All that serv'd Brutus” (V.v.60) is enlisted32 and Octavius becomes the inheritor of all that has preceded him. If he asserts himself in the closing lines of the play—and he does—it is with a voice less the harsh soldier's and more the confident politician's than Caesar's was:

According to his virtue let us use him [Brutus],
With all respect and rites of burial.
Within my tent his bones to-night shall lie,
Most like a soldier, order'd honourably.
So call the field to rest, and let's away,
To part the glories of this happy day.


We can imagine this imperator as Augustus, however far off the Imperium still is at the end of Julius Caesar.


As the imperator's role is not suppressed after the assassination, though it is in some ways altered, the orator's role does not quite disappear after the Forum scene either. The brief funeral speeches of Titinius and Brutus over fallen Cassius are solemn and resonant with Romanitas:

                    … this was he, Messala,
But Cassius is no more. O setting sun,
As in thy red rays thou dost sink to night,
So in his red blood Cassius' day is set.
The sun of Rome is set. Our day is gone;
Clouds, dews, and dangers come; our deeds are done.


The last of all the Romans, fare thee well!
It is impossible that ever Rome
Should breed thy fellow. Friends, I owe moe tears
To this dead man than you shall see me pay.
I shall find time, Cassius, I shall find time.


The distant analogy to the funeral orations for Caesar in Act III is obvious. But the differences are even more obvious. The reverberations from Act III are mild to just the extent that the epideictic oration differs from the deliberative. Here is formality without contrivance, rhetoric without ulterior purpose. Titinius and Brutus both use apostrophes that we may place beside those of Cassius with Casca in the storm and those of Antony with the conspirators over Caesar's body. The difference between grief-stricken direct address and sophistic manipulation of hearers is apparent.

The more famous laudatio funebris which Antony delivers over fallen Brutus follows two scenes later, with the same emphasis on Romanitas, the same ungrudging respect, the same quiet dignity:

This was the noblest Roman of them all.
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix'd in him, that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, “This was a man!”


Antony's magnanimity here is the more remarkable when one recalls that his funeral oration for Caesar was a cloak for an indictment of Brutus. The Roman world has changed greatly in the interim between the assassination and Philippi: as the battle ends, the turbulence which oratory aroused in the dying Republic subsides, and the Imperium draws inexorably nearer. At such a time exhortation yields to panegyric and manipulation to sincerity. One sees the difference in the contrast between “For Brutus is an honourable man” (III.ii.84 etc.) and “This was the noblest Roman of them all” (V.v.68).33 The contrast is analogous to the difference between Caesar's strident imperatives and Octavius' confident assertions in the closing lines of the play.

Without the orator as Antony has described him in his oration—clever, ulterior, calculating, nearly sinister—the mass permotio that impels history would not be stirred. But once events have carried the world beyond change into new stasis, one speaks over a dead friend's (or enemy's) body with a different purpose, a different voice.


  1. By comparison, others, for example, patriotism and Stoicism, have been perceived repeatedly and synoptically. The interpretation of Julius Caesar proposed here was first made in the colloquium “Classical Traditions in Shakespeare and the Renaissance” sponsored by the Classical Civilization Program at the University of Minnesota, April 7, 1982; I offer my thanks to Thomas Clayton, Director of the Program and organizer of the colloquium, for many courtesies. It is also a privilege to acknowledge the suggestions made by Frau Margret Popp when we were colleagues at Universität Würzburg in 1981.

  2. Milton B. Kennedy's The Oration in Shakespeare (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1942) is typical of scholarship before the 1970s: he discusses only the two orations in Act III, Scene ii (passim), although he does tabulate Marullus' harangue in Act I, Scene i, under “Demonstrative [that is, epideictic] Orations.” More recently a number of scholars such as Reuben Brower (Hero and Saint: Shakespeare and the Graeco-Roman Heroic Tradition [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971], p. 217) and Paul Cantor (Shakespeare's Rome: Republic and Empire [Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1976], pp. 112-13) have pointed out that persuasive rhetoric pervades the play, but until 1979 there was no comprehensive analysis of the oratory in Julius Caesar outside the Forum scene. Wolfgang Müller's Die Politische Rede bei Shakespeare (Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1979) does something substantial to fill that lacuna, although Müller's emphasis is as much political as rhetorical. With erudition and sensibility he discusses (pp. 89-156) speeches by Marullus, Cassius (I.ii), and Brutus (the soliloquy in the orchard), as well as the Forum speeches. (See also note 16 below.) My somewhat different approach (worked out before I encountered Die Politische Rede bei Shakespeare) should be seen as a complement, not an alternative, to Müller's.

  3. See Dorsch's Arden Edition (1955-58), pp. xxvii-xxviii, for an account of the pejorative criticism of Caesar's character since Hazlitt. Dorsch's own more moderate view (xxviii-xxxix) has been followed by a number of balanced interpretations, but none from the vantage taken here.

  4. T. S. Dorsch's edition is the authority for all JC quotations here. The inspiration for Antony's device is to be found in Plutarch's “Life of Julius Caesar”: “In a booke [Caesar] wrote against that which Cicero made in the praise of Cato, he prayeth the readers not to compare the stile of a souldier, with the eloquence of an excellent Orator, that had followed it the most part of his life.” See Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, V (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul; New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1964), p. 60. “The stile of a souldier” is, of course, the unadorned prose of Caesar's Commentarii; Shakespeare here characterizes it as speaking “right on.” Like Shakespeare's Antony, the historical Caesar was more clever than honest; he had, Plutarch reports, “an excellent naturall gift to speake well before the people … so that doubtlesse he was counted the second man for eloquence in his time” (ibid.).

  5. Curiously, Shakespeare puts the same sophistic disclaimer of sophistic arts in the mouth of Othello, a character we are to think of as otherwise of a “free and open nature” (I.iii.397-Arden Oth.): “Rude am I in my speech,. … / And therefore little shall I grace my cause, / In speaking for myself: yet (by your gracious patience) / I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver” (I.iii.81-90).

  6. “Atticism” was an unadorned oratorical style popular in Rome in the first century b.c.; it purported to be an imitation of Athenian oratory of the fifth and fourth centuries b.c. See George A. Kennedy, Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1980), pp. 117-18.

  7. See Plutarch's “Life of Marcus Antonius” (Bullough, V, 255): “He used a manner of phrase in his speeche, called Asiatik, which caried the best grace and estimation at that time, and was much like to his manners and life: for it was full of ostentation, foolishe braverie, and vaine ambition.” As Bullough notes, Shakespeare made nothing of Plutarch's disapproval. North's marginal note, “Antonius maketh uprore among the people, for the murther of Caesar,” appears opposite the account of the oration (p. 265).

  8. Plutarch says that in his letters Brutus “counterfeated that briefe compendious maner of speach of the Lacedaemonians” (Bullough, V, 91). As M. L. Clarke recently noted, however, the evidence from Cicero's Orator, Brutus, and Tusculans is that Brutus was not an Atticist in oratory; Brutus' Greek epistolary style and his Latin oratorical style were apparently not analogues. Shakespeare's erroneous inference is one that scholars since have made repeatedly, down to our own day. (The Noblest Roman: Marcus Brutus and His Reputation [Aspects of Greek and Roman Life, gen. ed. H. H. Scullard] Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1981, p. 26).

  9. Cf. “counterfeated” in Plutarch's description of Brutus' letters (note 8 above). Rhetorical contrivance does not, of course, make one a hypocrite by definition. For an excellent brief comment on the tenuous and largely unexplored relation between rhetoric and moral intention in Shakespeare, see L. C. Knights, “Rhetoric and Insincerity,” Shakespeare's Styles: Essays in Honour of Kenneth Muir, ed. Philip Edwards et al. (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1980), pp. 1-8.

  10. My colleague John Ruszkiewicz kindly pointed this out to me.

  11. Cicero shows someone in Antony's position how to counter an opponent's earlier arguments, if necessary by emotional appeal, “ut odio benevolentia, misericordia invidia tollatur” (De Oratore II.215-16). Cf. Aristotle, Rhetorica II.2.

  12. Rhetorica II.24; see especially the fourth kind of false enthymeme.

  13. Jean Fuzier makes an admirably detailed analysis of both orations in rhetorical terms, enumerating and discussing sixty-six different figures in them and tabulating the similarities and differences between the two speeches; see “Rhetoric versus Rhetoric: A Study of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 2,” Cahiers Elisabéthains, No. 5 (April 1974), 25-65.

  14. Only two of these are in the Folio stage directions, though Cassius says he heard three (I.ii.222). Charles Jennens (ed. of 1774) argued that the third should precede I.ii.146, serving as the precipitant of Cassius' angry outburst in that line; the nineteenth-century editors followed Jennens, though the twentieth-century editors have not done so. Cf. Müller's full perceptive rhetorical analysis of both speeches, op. cit., pp. 118-49.

  15. There is another offstage oration in the play about which we know even less; Cassius addresses a crowd in “the other street” in III.ii. while Brutus is holding the center of the stage in his own oration.

  16. In a detailed analysis of this monologue, Wolfgang G. Müller has shown convincingly that it is a classical oration in form, proceeding from exordium through narratio and propositio to argumentatio: only a full conclusio (peroratio) lacks. See “A Hidden Oration in Shakespeare's ‘Julius Caesar,’” Sprachkunst, 6 (1975), 104-14.

  17. It has often been observed that Cassius' two anecdotes are slanderous; Plutarch's “Life” portrays Caesar as an exceptionally strong swimmer (Bullough, V, 74-75), and so far from crying for drink “as a sick girl” (I.ii.126-27), Caesar in Spain “yeelded not to the disease of his bodie, to make it a cloke to cherishe him withall, but contrarilie, tooke the paines of warre, as a medicine to cure his sicke bodie fighting alwayes with his disease, travelling continually, living soberly, and commonly lying abroade in the field” (V, 66). The substance of this interpretation is subsumed in Müller's later book (see n. 2 above).

  18. Müller hints that this part of Act I, Scene iii, can be analyzed as an oration, but he does not perform the analysis; see n. 16, above.

  19. Müller quotes Ad Herennium in his article, on the effect of turning away from one's audience in this fashion: “If we use apostrophe in its proper place … we shall instil in the hearer as much indignation as we desire” (p. 112).

  20. At I.ii.65, Cassius' “Therefore, good Brutus, be prepar'd to hear” is not a response to Brutus' question about what dangers lie ahead but the completion of Cassius' own earlier statement that “many of the best respect in Rome / … Have wish'd that noble Brutus had his eyes.”

  21. In Shakespeare's Dramatic Language (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1976), Madeleine Doran comments cogently on the formulaic rhetoric of the servant's speech which she sees as serving the purpose of balancing Brutus against Caesar (pp. 146-47 and note).

  22. Cicero's De Oratore II. 178 can be taken as a revealing gloss on the passions oratory has aroused in the first half of Julius Caesar and on the emotional appeals of its rhetoric, apostrophe and ad hominem implication especially: most men make up their minds on emotional, not rational, grounds. “Plura enim multo homines iudicant odio aut amore aut cupiditate aut iracundia aut dolore aut laetitia aut spe aut timore aut errore aut aliqua permotione mentis, quam veritate aut praescriptio aut iuris norma aliqua aut iudicii formula aut legibus.”

  23. The phenomenon is the more notable as it contravenes Plutarch's observation that as an orator Caesar was second only to Cicero in his time. See n. 4 above. Cicero (Brutus, Ad Atticum) repeatedly speaks admiringly of Caesar's eloquence.

  24. Plutarch, after detailing Caesar's conquests and administrative innovations in the Iberian peninsula, records that “He having wonne great estimacion by this good order taken, returned from his government very riche, and his souldiers also full of rich spoyles, who called him Imperator, to say soveraine Captaine” (“Life of Caesar,” Bullough, V, 63). The marginal notation in North's translation calls attention to the anecdote.

  25. Julius Caesar was the first Roman commander to retain the military honorific beyond the point when it would customarily lapse (with his triumph or with the end of his magistracy); see Donald McFayden, The History of the Title Imperator Under the Roman Empire (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1920), pp. 15-27. Caesar also intruded military power into the political process, as Pompey and Sulla had done before him: both had made efforts to maneuver politically with the backing of their legions. Such intrusion of the military into the political world was made possible by the conversion in Marius' time of a militia loyal to the State into a standing army loyal to its general; see Moses Hadas, A History of Rome from its Origins to 529 A.D. as Told by the Roman Historians (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1956), pp. 54-55, 61. Eventually the military honorific became a de facto political term, though it retained its military flavor: the emperors adopted it as a specious means of claiming credit for the battles their generals had won.

  26. We may recall that prayer and oratory are linked in the Latin etymon oro.

  27. Ovid stellifies his Caesar in Book XV of The Metamorphoses in a passage Shakespeare alludes to in the first scene of Henry VI Part I (see Bedford's lines at I.i.55-56). A measure of Caesar's hubris in JC is this posthumous apotheosis in Ovid: Shakespeare's character confers it on himself.

  28. A second style Caesar affects, the illeistic, has often been regarded as a mark of his pompousness. Shakespeare may indeed have thought it a voice of the imperator, because it is the style that Julius Caesar employed in his Commentarii, the account of the wars that earned him that title. I have discussed this style elsewhere (ShakS, 4 [1968], 153; ShS, 31 [1978], 9-10).

  29. In a similar manner Shakespeare has other characters use Caesar's illeistic style also, again less obtrusively than the primary speaker. See the ShakS article referred to in n. 28, above.

  30. Editors have sometimes emended Octavius' thou to you; but the Folio reading makes excellent sense: in his Caesarian imperiousness, Octavius lets slip a most patronizing pronoun, then recovers and speaks more courteously afterward.

  31. V.i. 19-20. In Die Politische Rede …, p. 155, Müller comments similarly on the passage.

  32. If Strato were played by an actor who had been a Plebeian in the first half of the play, the doubling could make a moral point at this moment in the action.

  33. Madeleine Doran (op. cit., p. 152) emphasizes the reconciliation in Antony's magnanimous eulogy: “In separating Brutus from his fellow conspirators by the purity of his motives … Antony ends the disjunction between Brutus and Caesar which Cassius began in setting their names against one another” at I.ii.140-45.

William O. Scott (essay date 1988)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7824

SOURCE: “The Speculative Eye: Problematic Self-Knowledge in Julius Caesar,” in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 40, 1988, pp. 77-89.

[In the following essay, Scott considers Shakespeare's ironic treatment of self-knowledge in Julius Caesar.]

Terry Eagleton began his early book on Shakespeare and Society by quoting from Ulysses' effort to draw Achilles into action in act 3, scene 3 of Troilus and Cressida; at Ulysses' urging, Achilles remarked on the notion that we see ourselves only by reflection:

The beauty that is borne here in the face
The bearer knows not, but commends itself
To others' eyes …
For speculation turns not to itself
Till it hath travel'd and is mirror'd there
Where it may see itself

and Ulysses continued,

no man is the lord of anything,
Though in and of him there be much consisting,
Till he communicate his parts to others

(3.3.103-11, 115-17)1

Eagleton read these words as saying that ‘uncommunicated qualities don't have any real existence at all; a man is not simply known to others through communication, he can only know his own experience by putting it in a communicable form’ and that ‘a man who contracts out of public life is contracting out of reality’. He did not discuss the parallel and in some ways more challenging exchange when Cassius tries to recruit Brutus for his conspiracy in act I, scene 2 of Julius Caesar: Tell me, good Brutus, can you see your face?

Cassius. Tell me, good Brutus, can you see your face?
Brutus. No, Cassius, for the eye sees not itself
But by reflection, by some other things.
Cassius. 'Tis just.
And it is very much lamented, Brutus,
That you have no such mirrors as will turn
Your hidden worthiness into your eye,
That you might see your shadow. I have heard
Where many of the best respect in Rome,
Except immortal Caesar, speaking of Brutus
And groaning underneath this age's yoke,
Have wish'd that noble Brutus had his eyes.


Though Ulysses certainly has his own purposes in his scene, Cassius is even more obvious in pursuing self-interested objectives, and these call in doubt his claim to speak for society in interpreting Brutus. Thus Cassius' questioning is in turn questionable though it is not cancelled. In the development of modern literary theory too, critiques of both individual experience and social authority have made each seem increasingly complex and unstable; in a revisionary spirit one might now reread into Eagleton's early views something like Mikhail Bakhtin's proclamation of an open-ended polyphony of voices in the novel.2 But there were doubts too in Shakespeare's own time about the individual's access to private experience of selfhood that have been overlooked, and in some sort postmodernism may actually stimulate a recovery of the past.

First, though, it is helpful to clarify the occasion of Brutus' and Cassius' dialogue. Brutus has reported the Soothsayer's warning to Caesar about the ides of March and has expressed a desire to withdraw from Caesar's ceremony; Cassius next complains of Brutus' recent pensiveness. The prophecy may be as powerful a stimulus as the witches' greetings to Macbeth, though it is addressed to neither of them and though for the moment Brutus may resemble a Banquo more than a Macbeth. Its eventual impact on Brutus is shown when, having decided on Caesar's death, he checks the calendar (2.1.40). Along with the potentially related question whether to join Caesar in the ritual by which he seeks an heir, the prophecy creates a good moment for Cassius to sound out Brutus.

These are political matters, and Brutus too is doubtless aware of their public nature, which probably underlies the verbal sparring on both sides. But he chooses to define his response as a solely personal one:

                    If I have veil'd my look,
I turn the trouble of my countenance
Merely upon myself. Vexed I am
Of late with passions of some difference,
Conceptions only proper to myself,
Which give some soil, perhaps, to my behaviors.
But let not therefore my good friends be griev'd—
Among which number, Cassius, be you one—
Nor construe any further my neglect,
Than that poor Brutus, with himself at war,
Forgets the shows of love to other men.


Cassius' reply, which depends on the analogy with the eye's inability to see the face in response to Brutus' claim to turn inward, does not so much question the basis of personal qualities in the individual (as Ulysses' and Achilles' discussion does) as it denies the privileged status of Brutus' assertion of self-knowledge. The power to determine what Brutus may become (ironically a similar issue to Brutus' later deliberations about Caesar) resolves first into the power to perceive what he is now.

The claim of a uniquely privileged self-knowledge was by no means secure in Shakespeare's time, despite the impressions we are likely to form from popular moral tags. Evidence lies at hand in some of the most widely read authors, including sources or parallels that have been named for the passages in Julius Caesar and Troilus and Cressida.4 Perhaps the simplest is Cicero's raising of a doubt in his Tusculan Disputations; he interprets the command of Apollo's oracle at Delphi, ‘Know thyself’, to mean ‘Know thy soul’ (l. 52), and reasons as follows:

the soule is not able in this bodye to see him selfe. No more is the eye whyche although he seeth all other thinges, yet (that whiche is one of the leaste) can not discerne his owne shape. But admit that the soule can not consider him selfe: howebeit perhaps he may. His operacions, as quyckenes of inuention, sure remembraunce, continuance and swiftnes of motion, it doth wel ynoughe perceyue. And these be greate, yea heauenlye, yea euerlastinge thinges.


There is a gap here, however Cicero may try to reduce it, between knowledge of the soul directly and knowledge merely through its actions. Human self-knowledge also suffers from comparison with divine self-intuition, as in the Neoplatonic meditations (with citations from Plotinus) of Philippe de Mornay's Woorke concerning the trewnesse of the Christian Religion: the discursively-reasoning human subject has a hard time knowing ‘his owne Soule by the power of his Soule … For the maner of his discourse is but to proceede from kynd to kynd, and to passe from one reason to another. But on the contrary part, his mynd seeth not it selfe, but onely turneth into it selfe. …’ In contrast, God's self-intuition yields ‘a reflexion backe againe to it self, as a face doth in a Lookingglasse. … And whereas wee comprehend not our selves; that commeth of the darknesse and lumpishnesse of our flesh, which maketh us unlike our selves.’6 Several difficulties are raised by Marcantonio Zimara, whose Problemata appeared in British editions of the pseudo-Aristotelian work of that name; he questions whether self-knowledge can be attained only by ‘a reflexed action’: ‘to reflect and looke vnto himselfe, is a token that we are separated from the flesh. For he who would know himselfe, should be drawne from sensible affections, and how hard this is, no man is ignorant. Or is it because a man liueth by vnderstanding? But the vnderstanding of a man cannot conceiue himselfe, but after the vnderstanding of another, and this is very hard.’7 Showing through the precise philosophical content of these difficulties is the notion that for a variety of reasons the discrepancies between knower and known hinder full self-knowledge; but if self-knowledge is merely of externals, it is only as certain as other knowledge. In Brutus' case an interested party directs the other knowledge and tries to weaken the status of self-knowledge.

The instabilities in Julius Caesar find closer analogues among critiques of self-knowledge that invoke a radical scepticism (even with a fideistic aim) towards all human knowledge. These involve a turning of statements that restrict knowledge back on their own origins to show that the mind is trapped in its own self-limitations and self-descriptions; though the play does not go so far in general statement, we may wish, for a start, to turn Cassius' words back on him and ask what mirror shows him himself, and how accurately. A world made up of selves each determined by all the others would not be simple or stable. Though he does not raise questions of this last sort, Sir John Davies gives a sharp critique in Nosce Teipsum of the problems of reflexive knowledge (however necessary it may be). The stanzas that are usually cited to parallel Shakespeare are these:

Is it because the minde is like the eye,
(Through which it gathers knowledge by degrees)
Whose rayes reflect not, but spread outwardly,
Not seeing it selfe, when other things it sees?
No doubtlesse: for the minde can backward cast
Upon her selfe her understanding light;
But she is so corrupt, and so defac't,
As her owne image doth her selfe affright.(8)

(lines 105-12)

This corruption of the mind is explained better by Davies's retelling of the fall of Adam and Eve: the ‘Spirit of lies’ tempted them by suggesting ‘That they were blind, because they saw not Ill’, and their first act of self-knowledge was of the evil they had just learned to do (lines 13-24) in order to know. Self-knowledge was tainted from the start, and even now we are mocked by Socrates, Democritus, and the Delphic oracle (the devil's continuing triumph):

For this, the wisest of all Moral men,
Said he knew nought, but that he nought did know;
And the great mocking Maister, mockt not then,
When he said, Truth was buried deepe below.
For how may we to other things attaine?
When none of us his owne soule understands?
For which the Divell mockes our curious braine,
When know thy selfe, his oracle commands.

(lines 77-84)

The powers of human and diabolic knowledge combine only to show us how little we know of ourselves and to taunt us with the impossible. In a related passage Du Bartas (who says in another place that ‘as the Eye perceaves / All but it selfe, even so our Soule conceaves / All save her owne selfes Essence’) tells that before the Fall,

Mankind was then a thousand fold more wise
Then now, blind error had not bleard his eyes,
With mists which make th'Athenian Sage suppose
That nought he knows, save this, that nought he knowes.
That even light Pirrhons wavering fantasies
Reave him the skill his unskill to agnize.
And th'Abderite, within a well obscure
As deep as darke, the truth of things immure.(9)

Socrates and Democritus are here joined as critics of the limits of knowledge by Pyrrho, spokesman for a radically sceptical school: he would disallow as being dogmatic even the one point of knowledge claimed by Socrates. But then he would have to refrain from actually asserting universal doubt, because that assertion, too, being a positive statement, would contradict its own principle; thus it is that his ‘fantasies / Reave him the skill his unskill to agnize’ (‘la fantasque inconstance / Luy oste le sçavoir de sçavoir l'ignorance’).10 The weakened human reason strikes at itself by the very power of language through which it must operate. In the form of a single statement rather than a general philosophical position, a model for such self-undermining would be the liar paradox, ‘This very sentence is false’, which refers to itself so as to seem false if true, and true if false. There is good reason to think that Shakespeare knew this paradox from Thomas Wilson's The Rule of Reason (1553 or later edition).11 Though there is nothing in Julius Caesar like the content of this paradox or these sceptical views, there are major occasions when the text is at war with itself in this fashion (even if the war is undeclared as in Cassius' mirror concept which simply invites other applications). Self-reference generates highly productive conflicts, especially when the reference is to the action as itself a play.

In a play which throws so much open to interpretation—the meaning of dreams, comparison of rhetorical skills to motivate political reactions—it is fitting that Cicero complains that ‘men may construe things after their fashion, / Clean from the purpose of the things themselves' (1.3.34-5). But it may still be questioned whether things do have a purpose that can be specified as Cicero seems to assume. Though he did not use it in the play, Shakespeare had before him in Plutarch's Life of Brutus a view, propounded by Cassius as Epicurean philosophy, which gives a broad scope to subjectivity:

In our secte, Brutus, we have an opinion, that we doe not alwayes feele, or see, that which we suppose we doe both see and feele: but that our senses beeing credulous, and therefore easily abused (when they are idle and unoccupied in their owne objects) are induced to imagine they see and conjecture that, which they in truth doe not. For, our minde is quicke and cunning to worke (without eyther cause or matter) any thinge in the imagination whatsoever.

But yet there is a further cause of this in you. For you being by nature given to melancholick discoursing, and of late continually occupied: your wittes and sences having bene overlabored, doe easilier yeelde to such imaginations.12

If Brutus is as melancholic as Cassius says here, there is another basis for considering that ‘cause or matter’ is absent. Timothy Bright finds absence of an object characteristic of melancholy:

The reason is because, they measure all outward accidents, by that they finde of discontentment within: not that the humor that discontenteth is any instrument of passion, or carieth with it faculty to be displeased: but because it disquieteth the body, and giueth discontentment to nature, it is occasion why displeasures are made great: and where there is no cause, nature troubled within, faireth as greatly displeased with that which outwardly should not displease. …13

The melancholic's self-perception would be especially problematic and circular, for the perceptions on which it depends would be themselves conditioned strongly by the self as perceiver. All these circumstances invite manipulation of appearances by Cassius, Caesar, and in remarkable ways Brutus. The situation has a notable effect on the individualistic politics of the play, well described by A. W. Bellringer: ‘The cross-assessments and counter-estimates, the generalisations on men and their worth, are not mere constructions of ambiguous “characters” on Shakespeare's part, but fall essentially into a dialectic of suspicion.’14 Suspicion is doubtless a more honest fulfilment of Cassius' proposal that persons evaluate each other than the portrayal of it that he gives to Brutus.

For these several reasons given or implied by the various writers, self-knowledge, either direct or reflected, is problematic: the otherness of the soul as object of knowledge from the consciousness-in-a-body that is to do the knowing, the imperfectness of reflection in an imperfect being, the difficulty of modelling knowledge to oneself after knowledge of others, the tendency of self-limiting descriptions of oneself to reflect back on the means and degree to which they are known, and the relativity of the perceptions by which one might judge oneself (including especially their dependence on that very same self). To these can be added a comment by Elizabeth Freund on the passage in Troilus and Cressida which lays open the connection with paradoxical self-reference:

The drift of the text Ulysses is so ‘rapt in’ concerns a perennial philosophical and literary critical topos: we cannot step outside our own minds and must rely on reflection, echo, and mirroring otherness to constitute us. The ‘eye’, organ of sight, cannot see itself but by reflection; the ‘I’ cannot know itself with any immediacy, but must loop along strange courses of speculative mirroring which prohibit it from ever coinciding with itself. Achilles remains unperturbed by the prospect of a strange loop which puts in question the very existence of himself as subject, and he persists in believing that ‘speculation’ (eyesight, insight, consciousness, the self) does eventually—even if indirectly—rise into view. But Ulysses pursues the more radical conclusion, that no man can ever be in full possession of himself, and continues to attack and undercut Achilles' confident self-possession until, by the end of the scene, Achilles is no longer so sure that he can see himself.15

Self-knowledge involves self-reference, and in both processes the subject and object fail to coincide. To introduce another person as mediator of self-knowledge is to compound the discrepancy, especially if that person is duplicitous as, for instance, Cassius is. Yet (to continue the application to Brutus and Cassius) after Cassius had shown Brutus a reflection, the situation might not be as much in his control as he thought or wished, if Brutus could in turn adjust his self-image to his own perceptions of Cassius. (Mirrors can reflect reciprocally, though Cassius takes care not to say so.) Trusting though Brutus is, something of the dialectic of suspicion might operate. But Brutus would not be in control either, for self-knowledge would presumably change him, especially to the degree that it involved something alien introduced by Cassius. For this reason, even if he could perceive a good deal about particular strategies of his own and Cassius' at particular moments, Brutus would really never be able to coincide fully with himself in self-knowledge, view himself from an ‘absolute’ or unchanging position outside his interaction with Cassius. He could never make an absolute, accurate statement of self-knowledge that would be definitive, even for that moment.

Thus, although in a large sense self-knowledge and its relation to knowledge of others must be questioned, Brutus may well have a keen eye for Cassius' immediate strategies.16 In the second scene he responds not directly to Cassius' offer to be a mirror but rather to the obvious political implications in his report of ‘many of the best respect in Rome, / Except immortal Caesar, speaking of Brutus / And groaning underneath this age's yoke’; Brutus replies, ‘Into what dangers would you lead me, Cassius’ (1.2.59-61, 63). Anyone who can then discuss whether Caesar's crowning is to be feared (a slip of the tongue that may be calculated) and can desire that Cassius might impart to him ‘aught toward the general good’ has a fair idea of what he expects to hear. He keeps his counsel about what he does hear, the obvious envy by Cassius of the Caesar whom Brutus professes to love well, yet he shows not only awareness of Cassius' purpose but some acceptance: ‘What you would work me to, I have some aim’ (1.2.163). Brutus is thus a willing collaborator in being manipulated; but if self-knowledge alone is problematic, compounded with self-management and collusion it is doubly or trebly so.

Brutus' soliloquy in the orchard sounds most natural not as isolated self-reflection but as meditation conditioned by an internal dialogue with an imagined other, someone like Cassius:

It must be by his death. And, for my part,
I know no personal cause to spurn at him,
But for the general. He would be crown'd.
How that might change his nature, there's the question.
It is the bright day that brings forth the adder,
And that craves wary walking. Crown him that,
And then I grant we put a sting in him
That at his will he may do danger with.
Th' abuse of greatness is when it disjoins
Remorse from power. And, to speak truth of Caesar,
I have not known when his affections sway'd
More than his reason. But 'tis a common proof
That lowliness is young ambition's ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;
But when he once attains the upmost round,
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend. So Caesar may.
Then, lest he may, prevent.


My italics mark the clearest signs of dialogic response. Brutus begins with what seems like a conclusion;17 but he would have been brought to that point as if by an unheard voice letting him reach the decision himself. Death is no new concept to him in these deliberations, and the word needs no emphasis; the change is rather in the assertion of will signalled by the verbs. Brutus next defines himself in contrast to the unheard other by his lack of personal animus and his ability to speak truly of Caesar, yet he must concede decisively that Caesar would be crowned and that crowning puts a sting in him. Brutus carries on this persuasion by the imagined other-in-himself through flagrantly rhetorical means: by application of abstract principles to individual cases, and by argument from analogy.18 Although these arts are ultimately directed against himself, they are at first weapons in a constant mental skirmish with the idea of Cassius' influence.

Brutus' final direction in this speech seems all the more an artful self-manipulation:

          And, since the quarrel
Will bear no color for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus: that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities.
And therefore think him as a serpent's egg
Which, hatch'd, would, as his kind, grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell.

(lines 28-34)

But A. D. Nuttall rightly puts the emphasis instead on the abstract argument Brutus is pursuing (again, one might add, a more understandable activity if it serves an internal polemic): Nuttall paraphrases ‘Fashion it thus’ as ‘Let's try the argument this way.’19 His final point, though, is that even if the argument is not itself an attempt by Brutus to dictate a motive to himself, it eventually may become that: ‘the proper corruption of moral abstraction is diabolical cynicism’. Surely it is here that self-delusion takes place: though Brutus has consciously cultivated an imagined debate, the dispute does not really establish by rational inquiry what would be sufficient motive for killing Caesar, but rather it becomes itself that motive. Process usurps over substance, and mental staging impinges on overt action. The rhetorical quality of Roman culture (reproduced in Elizabethan education) projects itself into dramatic imagining, and this dramatic pre-enactment in turn governs the act of assassination that will be staged for us. Brutus' self-consciousness thus generates its own self-altering self-reference, a metadrama that rewrites his internal drama and thereby shapes the overt one that we see.

Brutus acknowledges the decisiveness of his commitment though he feels its cost:

Since Cassius first did whet me against Caesar,
I have not slept.
Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream.
The Genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council; and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.

(lines 61-9)

In this he is like Macbeth, but he himself is the dagger of the mind, to be held by another. He well knows and accepts that he has been whetted by Cassius.20 He seems to view his suffering not as a warning to turn back but quite the contrary, as a goading to take relief in action. By the end of the scene images of sickness are being converted to frenzied activity through an effort of will: Portia's wound to Brutus' prayer that he may be worthy of her in conspiracy, and Ligarius' probably feigned sickness to companionship in the exploit.

If Brutus' attitude seems strangely self-detached, it befits not only the knowing paradox of self-imaging through others but an ironic distancing from the shows of Caesar's politics. The tone is set by Casca as he describes the display that incited the rebels, Caesar's refusal of a crown:

I can as well be hang'd as tell the manner of it. It was mere foolery; I did not mark it. I saw Mark Antony offer him a crown—yet 'twas not a crown neither, 'twas one of these coronets—and, as I told you, he put it by once; but, for all that, to my thinking, he would fain have had it. Then he offer'd it to him again; then he put it by again; but, to my thinking, he was very loath to lay his fingers off it.

If the tag-rag people did not clap him and hiss him, according as he pleas'd and displeas'd them, as they use to do the players in the theatre, I am no true man.

… when he perceiv'd the common herd was glad he refus'd the crown, he pluck'd me ope his doublet and offer'd them his throat to cut. An I had been a man of any occupation, if I would not have taken him at a word, I would I might go to hell among the rogues.

(1.2.235-42, 258-61, 263-8)

Caesar, like Richard III appearing between two bishops to reject an offer of the throne (Richard III, 3.7), has mastered the art of the political feeler, which allows him to claim credit now for refusing what he most wants but which also prepares for eventual acceptance. For the more knowing, the performance is, if need be, a transparent ruse that coerces with the force of political prophecy; its effect is to be like the Scrivener's response to another of Richard's stratagems, ‘Who is so gross / That cannot see this palpable device? / Yet who so bold but says he sees it not?’ (3.6.10-12). As if displaying humility, Caesar also makes an offer to the crowd (like Richard reversing the hostility of Lady Anne) of his undefended body: but again he tries to intimidate possible rebels by showing how safe he is. Almost to foreshadow the assassination, Casca thinks of taking literally this offer that was not meant so; the cynical display is an occasion for a cynical reaction. He looks on Caesar's show with an unwilling suspension of disbelief. Brutus' response too is jaded: where public life is lie and show, and is at least half meant to be known as such, it is paradoxically likely (and not unknown in our own time) that he should willingly connive at distorting his image of himself to prepare for action. And as audience we are yet more directly touched by Casca's gibe at playgoers: powerless to alter a famous event of history and wanting the fictive-historical show to go on however bloody, we anticipate with the eagerness of tragic audiences for dramatic irony a more literal enactment of Caesar's open-doublet gesture.

The conspiracy can rise to an acceptable claim of nobility only by an effort of will, and Brutus at once sets out to achieve it. As if to ennoble the deed by style and theatricality he sets high standards for the conspirators:

                    do not stain
The even virtue of our enterprise,
Nor th' insuppressive mettle of our spirits,
To think that or our cause or our performance
Did need an oath …
O, that we then could come by Caesar's spirit,
And not dismember Caesar! But, alas,
Caesar must bleed for it. And, gentle friends,
Let's kill him boldly, but not wrathfully;
Let's carve him as a dish fit for the gods,
Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds.
Let not our looks put on our purposes,
But bear it as our Roman actors do,
With untir'd spirits and formal constancy.

(2.1.132-6, 169-74, 225-7)

As critics have said, he tries himself to write a tragedy in which the act of killing Caesar is purified.21 The artifice of such writing, evidenced by the resistance of fact and eventually by the course of the play, is as clear in its self-undermining as a liar paradox.

As the conspirators finally enact their sanctified bloody deed, they at once look forward to future performances which already for us carry their own belying:

Brutus. Stoop, Romans, stoop,
And let us bathe our hands in Caesar's blood
Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords.
Then walk we forth, even to the market-place,
And, waving our red weapons o'er our heads,
Let's all cry, ‘Peace, freedom, and liberty!’
Cassius. Stoop, then, and wash. [They bathe their hands and weapons.] How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!
Brutus. How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport,
That now on Pompey's basis lies along
No worthier than the dust!
Cassius. So oft as that shall be,
So often shall the knot of us be call'd
The men that gave their country liberty.


The spectacle of stage blood, so popular in Shakespeare's time, reinforces the word-picturing,22 but at the same time it both corrupts the verbal purification that Brutus sought and reminds us, the tragic spectators, of our thirst for gore. Moreover, in the contrast between the play that the characters thought they were staging for posterity and the way we actually judge the outcome we see how ‘history denies their dreams’.23 Here is a truer action of the mirror than in Cassius' pretensions to represent Brutus: all the characters on stage have their being only as we the audience judge them, but they are in turn a mirror held up to disclose and determine for us our own nature. We see that Caesar bleeds in the sport now played by his jubilant killers, but we know that they themselves will bleed. And are those future tragedies, which are called sport by an actor in the present tragedy, any more or less sportive as entertainment than what we see at the moment? There is moreover no reassuring distinction between reality and its enactment either present or future, since all that we see is staged and our own existence is paradoxically drawn into that staging by the metadramatic mirror. And what is our own sportive nature if we behold in the mirror the expected and desired tragic bloodbath?

More positively, the mental force exerted by Brutus to make his deed other than it is can be viewed as poetic. Probably the word ‘sport’ is only coincidence, but a comment by Plutarch as he prepares to discuss Alexander the Great puts importance on the smallest mental activity and, somewhat like Cassius, compares the image of the face:

the noblest deedes doe not alwayes shew mens vertues and vices, but oftentimes a light occasion, a word, or some sporte makes mens naturall dispositions and maners appeare more plaine, then the famous battells wonne, wherein are slaine tenne thowsande men, or the great armies, or cities wonne by siege or assault. For like as painters or drawers of pictures, which make no accompt of other partes of the bodie, do take the resemblaunces of the face and favor of the countenance, in the which consisteth the judgement of their maners and disposition: even so they must geve us leave to seeke out the signes and tokens of the minde only, and thereby shewe the life of either of them, referring you unto others to wryte the warres, battells, and other great thinges they did.24

Here is almost a challenge to the dramatist to project an internal life into history imaginatively. The imaginative poetic power or ‘phantasie’ is to George Puttenham a mirror, though there are both false and true glasses: ‘And this phantasie may be resembled to a glasse as hath bene sayd, whereof there be many tempers and manner of makinges, as the perspectiues doe acknowledge, for some be false glasses and shew thinges otherwise than they be in deede, and others right as they be in deede. …’25 These ambivalent notions are put to their hardest test in tragedy where the images are hard to distinguish and where the characters make their choices knowing the difficulties.

The outcome of the deed is foreshadowed almost as soon as Antony comes upon the bloody scene. At once he seems overcome with grief, but he does not lose control of himself:

O mighty Caesar! Dost thou lie so low?
Are all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils,
Shrunk to this little measure? Fare thee well.—
I know not, gentlemen, what you intend,
Who else must be let blood, who else is rank;
If I myself, there is no hour so fit
As Caesar's death's hour, nor no instrument
Of half that worth as those your swords, made rich
With the most noble blood of all this world.
I do beseech ye, if you bear me hard,
Now, whilst your purpled hands do reek and smoke,
Fulfill your pleasure.


His feelings may well be sincere, but if they are they also serve a politic purpose by making him seem trustworthy in any possible deal with the conspirators.26 He actually repeats Caesar's gesture in the coronation episode of putting himself at the others' mercy, though not as a show of strength; yet the conspirators are in fact in a weak position, for they must treat him gently if they are to prove themselves in their own minds (or at least in Brutus' mind) not to be butchers. He places an important proviso on any compact he might make with them:

Antony. Friends am I with you all, and love you all,
Upon this hope, that you shall give me reasons
Why and wherein Caesar was dangerous.
Brutus. Or else were this a savage spectacle.
Our reasons are so full of good regard
That were you, Antony, the son of Caesar,
You should be satisfied.

(lines 221-7)

He thus manages to reduce Brutus' project of justifying the death to a condition for a political bargain (an empty one, since Antony has already privately made up his mind). Of course it will also become a public rhetorical contest in the Forum, and that major concession Antony arranges at once, while a show of fairness is still uppermost in Brutus' mind. The old cynical politics of Caesar still live in Antony's somewhat calculated emotional shows and in his purposes which are meant to be partly divined. Antony also knows something like the craftiness of Cassius' mirror tactics: the image of himself he shows to Brutus, or allows him to discover in half-hidden purposes, will minister to the image that Brutus wants to have of himself as sanctified killer.

The triumph of Antony's funeral oration is even more the triumph of the Caesarian politics of show, along with the rhetoric that mirrors and serves them. Again he trots out the display of Caesar's refusing the crown to establish what was always its crudest meaning, and he is obvious in his use of irony and rhetorical question, and also of litotes or perhaps occupatio:27

You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse. Was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious,
And, sure, he is an honorable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.


The heavy-handedness of his rhetoric and its contrast with our subtler assessments of character produce opposite effects on us and on the plebeians (though they have been, and remain, parodies of the theatre audience). The result is well described by Nicholas Brooke:

His repulsive ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ speech is an exhibition of the destruction of reason by rhetoric; the continuous play on ‘Brutus is an honourable man’ becomes unbearable in its insistence—to us—on its truth, at the same time that it is used to enforce—on the crowd—the belief that it is not true.

(p. 157)

Almost the same divergence occurs in the beginning of his speech:

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones.
So let it be with Caesar.

(lines 76-9)

Though his statement of intention seems straightforward to his hearers in the Forum at the time, he means them to discover gradually his purpose of actually praising Caesar and to congratulate themselves on their sagacity in sharing in his rhetoric (his tactics of flattery might parody Cassius' initial handling of Brutus). Thus too the crowd would come to perceive a ‘good’ that ought to live after Caesar, first when his will is read and then when they resolve to avenge his death. For us, who know Antony's resolve that ‘Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge, / With Ate by his side come hot from hell, / Shall in these confines with a monarch's voice / Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war’ (3.1.271-4), the intended effect of his speech sounds more like one of the evils living after Caesar. Somewhat like Cassius, Antony projects to his auditors the images he desires them to have of Caesar and themselves (and of course Brutus and the rest), partly by their planned divining of his not-so-hidden meaning. Behind all this there is another art hidden from them in his deeper purposes; if they knew of it, they might not be moved as they are, but one cynically suspects that they would nonetheless. Meanwhile, on the less consoling metadramatic level, the plebeians who execute and partly mirror Antony's intention are parodic versions of us.

In the abstract, as well as in the practical examples displayed by Antony, verbal irony is an especially paradoxical intertwining of notions of truth and falsity. Irony is transparent dissimulation, and its transparency is what distinguishes it from lying; the irony must at once be apparent to the initiated reader. Yet it could be said that a text must be always already understood by the reader in order to be comprehended at all, and this oddity would seem to be especially the case with ironic texts. Further, to the extent that a text contains a signal of its irony, that signal destroys in literalism the irony it displays, so that an ideal irony would dispense altogether with signals.28 From this viewpoint, irony almost makes the liar paradox, with its overt statement that undoes itself by self-reference, seem unproblematic by comparison. In this play, though, there are multiple levels of paradox which are latent as irony is, and they are all the more hidden when they seem to have disclosed something of themselves. The half-open political moves and the staged disclosures of character (one's own or someone else's) are reversed by what remains for the time hidden; yet events become overt enough in the end for Brutus and Cassius, and therefore us.

Metadramatically too we would like to see and refer to or mirror ourselves in the best qualities of Brutus, especially his self-description, which seems to be our way into his character and into the whole play. But Brutus all but self-consciously turns his best into a great mistake; and apart from that the play continually forces us to compare ourselves and the world we know with characters and situations that are less than perceptive and ideal. Whether through Renaissance puzzlings about the limits and difficulty of self-knowledge, the traditional liar paradox, Cassius' disingenuous notions about mirrors, the metadramatic vision of tragedy as a blood sport, or some more modern problematics, we may have to concede that like Brutus we did not always already know and therefore never will, can never complete the task without paradox, nor indeed begin. Yet these statements themselves claim that Julius Caesar has shown Brutus and us a great deal.


  1. Shakespeare and Society (1967), pp. 13-14. I have quoted more from Troilus than Eagleton did and have used, as throughout, the Complete Works, ed. David Bevington, 3rd edn (Glenview, 1980). I gratefully acknowledge the assistance of the University of Kansas General Research Fund grant 3439-0038.

  2. The example of Bakhtin is not casual: the view quoted from Eagleton resembles the thesis in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, published under the name of V. N. Volosinov but argued to be Bakhtin's by Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist, Mikhail Bakhtin (Cambridge, Mass., 1984), pp. 160, 166. Without naming titles, Eagleton describes Raymond Williams, to whom his early book is dedicated, as a long-time enthusiast of Volosinov—The Function of Criticism (1984), p. 109. Bakhtin's views on the novel are expressed in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics and The Dialogic Imagination. Eagleton cites both the Marxism book and Bakhtin's book on Rabelais in William Shakespeare (Oxford, 1986), p. 106.

  3. His flight into privacy is well discussed by Jonathan Goldberg, James I and the Politics of Literature (Baltimore, 1983), pp. 170-1.

  4. There are discussions in the Oxford, Arden, and Cambridge editions of Julius Caesar, and the New Variorum edition of Troilus and Cressida. Sources for wording and ideas are discussed by Gary Taylor, ‘Musophilus, Nosce Teipsum, and Julius Caesar’, Notes and Queries, ns 31 (June, 1984), 191-5. The ideas about eyes and reflections are treated as proverbial in Morris Palmer Tilley, A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor, 1950), and R. W. Dent, Shakespeare's Proverbial Language (Berkeley, 1981), E231a and 232. There is much information on writings about self-knowledge in Rolf Soellner, Shakespeare's Patterns of Self-Knowledge (Columbus, 1972).

  5. Those fyue qvestions, which Marke Tullye Cicero, disputed in his manor of Tuscalanum, trans. John Dolman (1561), E6v-E7. Perhaps Cicero is influenced by Plato's distinction in 1 Alcibiades (another source which has been claimed for Shakespeare), 132E-133E, between the soul itself and qualities or things which merely belong to the person.

  6. Trans. Sir Philip Sidney, Prose Works of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. Albert Feuillerat (1912; repr. Cambridge, 1962), vol. 3, 252, 264-5; other references include 266, 270-1, and 296 (Plotinus).

  7. Problemes, in The Problemes of Aristotle (Edinburgh, 1595), G5-G5v. Zimara's work appeared with Aristotle in at least the Latin edition of 1583 and the English ones of 1595 and 1597. He is mentioned as raising problems about self-knowledge in the oft-printed annotations by Claudius Minoes on Andrea Alciati's Emblemata (Emblem CLXXXVII, ‘Submouendam ignorantiam’). He was very well known as a commentator on Aristotle and Averroës.

  8. Poems, ed. Robert Krueger (Oxford, 1975), p. 9 (ll. 105-12). Other pertinent passages include ll. 185-8 and 761-4. J. L. Simmons says that this first-quoted passage ‘shows the incoherence of the image when pursued too far on the literal level’—Shakespeare's Pagan World (Charlottesville, 1973), p. 96.

  9. Guillaume de Saluste, Sieur du Bartas, The Divine Weeks and Works, trans. Josuah Sylvester, ed. Susan Snyder (Oxford, 1979), vol. I, 283, 323-4 (; II.i. ‘Eden’ 261-8). His knowledge of Greek philosophy is evident in ‘Le Triomfe de la foi’, Chant Second.

  10. The French is quoted from Works, ed. Urban Tigner Holmes, Jr, John Coriden Lyons, and Robert White Linker (Chapel Hill, 1940), vol. III, 8 (ll. 229-30). Pyrrhonian scepticism is described by Diogenes Laertius (IX.61f.) and by Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism. In I. 14 Sextus discusses the statements such as ‘All things are false’ which cancel themselves out in the manner of the liar paradox, my next topic.

  11. The relevant passage from Wilson is in the edition by Richard S. Sprague (Northridge, 1972), pp. 216-17, where Epimenides the Cretan, describing Cretans as liars, self-referentially undercuts his own statement. I have given reasons for Wilson's pertinence and have applied the paradox critically to Shakespeare's plays in two articles in Shakespeare Quarterly: ‘The Paradox of Timon's Self-Cursing’, 35 (1984), 290-304; and ‘Macbeth's—And Our—Self-Equivocations’, 37 (1986), 160-74.

  12. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough (1964), vol. 5, p. 116. This, along with the speech by Cicero, is cited by D. J. Palmer, ‘The Self-Awareness of the Tragic Hero’, in Shakespearian Tragedy, ed. David Palmer and Malcolm Bradbury, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 20 (1984), p. 138.

  13. A Treatise of Melancholie (1586), facsimile ed. Hardin Craig (New York, 1940), p. 96. Brutus is discussed as melancholic by W. Nicholas Knight, ‘Brutus' Motivation and Melancholy’, Upstart Crow, 5 (Fall 1984), 108-24. Though the description is just, Brutus seems, for reasons which will appear, to be more self-conscious and perhaps therefore less pathological than Knight describes.

  14. A. W. Bellringer, ‘Julius Caesar: Room Enough’, Critical Quarterly, 12 (1970), 31-48; rpr. in Shakespeare's Wide and Universal Stage, ed. C. B. Cox and D. J. Palmer (Manchester, 1984), pp. 146-163; p. 152.

  15. ‘“Ariachne's Broken Woof”: the Rhetoric of Citation in Troilus and Cressida’, in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (New York, 1985), pp. 28-9. ‘Strange loops’ are discussed in relation to the self-reference of the liar paradox by Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach (New York, 1979). In Gadamer's Hermeneutics (New Haven, 1985), Joel C. Weinsheimer applies Gödel's reasoning about self-reference in mathematical axioms to the claims of Hegelian self-knowledge (as an explanation of Gadamer's views): self-knowledge, though it may be true, must be incomplete (as it is, given the nature of language) or else potentially paradoxical (pp. 37-59). William R. Brashear discusses the implications for tragedy of noncorrespondence of knower and known according to Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Spengler in The Gorgon's Head (Athens, Georgia, 1977), pp. 1-26.

  16. His awareness of Cassius' doings is discussed by Camille Wells Slights, The Casuistical Tradition (Princeton, 1981), p. 83.

  17. Palmer, p. 136. He also says of Brutus that ‘The sequence of his speeches progresses inwards, revealing a disordered judgement’—and perhaps, one might add, a strange loop.

  18. Slights, pp. 82-91 (with emphasis, however, on a casuistical rather than rhetorical tradition); Gayle Greene, ‘The Language of Brutus' Soliloquy: Similitude and Self-Deception in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar’, in Humanitas: Essays in Honor of Ralph Ross, ed. Quincy Howe, Jr (Claremont, 1977), pp. 74-86. The rhetorical emphasis in the play is justly described by Anne Barton, ‘Julius Caesar and Coriolanus: Shakespeare's Roman World of Words’, in Shakespeare's Craft, ed. Philip H. Highfill, Jr (Carbondale, 1982), pp. 24-47, and by James R. Siemon, Shakespearean Iconoclasm (Berkeley, 1985), pp. 153-66. Constitution of an individual through the words of another is a subject of Pierre Spriet, ‘Amour et politique: le discours de l'autre dans Julius Caesar’, Coriolan (Travaux de l'Université de Toulouse-Le Mirail, Série B, Tome 5, 1984), pp. 227-39.

  19. A New Mimesis (1983), p. 108. Perhaps Brutus' mind is almost running ahead to a justifying speech he would make in the Forum; the outline has a heading ‘Extremities’, though the subtopics are as yet unspecified.

  20. The note on l. 61 by the Oxford editor, Arthur Humphreys, partially agrees with this interpretation; but I do not think the implications of ‘whet’ are unconscious for Brutus.

  21. Sigurd Burkhardt, Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton, 1968), pp. 7-8; Nicholas Brooke, Shakespeare's Early Tragedies (1968), pp. 152-3; Lawrence Danson, Tragic Alphabet (New Haven, 1974), pp. 56-67 (the latter two critics with emphasis on the failure of purification). An earlier treatment of ritual and counter-ritual is Brents Stirling, Unity in Shakespearian Tragedy (New York, 1956), pp. 44-53.

  22. Maurice Charney, Shakespeare's Roman Plays (Cambridge, Mass., 1961), p. 51.

  23. Thomas F. Van Laan, Role-Playing in Shakespeare (Toronto, 1978), p. 160.

  24. Plutarch's Lives, trans. Sir Thomas North, ed. George Wyndham, Tudor Translations (1895), vol. 4, p. 298. Reuben A. Brower, Hero & Saint (Oxford, 1971), p. 207, remarks on Plutarch's failure to follow his precept.

  25. The Arte of English Poesie, ed. Gladys Doidge Willcock and Alice Walker (Cambridge, 1936), p. 19. This passage is cited by Palmer, p. 139. The element of deceit in figurative language according to Puttenham is discussed by Inga-Stina Ewbank, ‘Shakespeare's Liars’ (British Academy Shakespeare Lecture, 1983), Proceedings of the British Academy, 69 (1983), p. 166.

  26. Alessandro Serpieri, ‘Reading the Signs: towards a Semiotics of Shakespearean Drama’, in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (1985), p. 129. He also notices (p. 134) that Antony's soliloquy revealing his stratagem (ll. 255-76) parallels one by Cassius after he has worked on Brutus (1.2.308-22).

  27. Serpieri discusses litotes, paralepsis (occupatio), and negation among Antony's techniques (p. 133).

  28. These points about irony are made by Beda Allemann, ‘De l'ironie en tant que principe littéraire’, Poétique, 36 (November, 1978), 388-96. He does not draw a comparison to the liar paradox.

Jean-Pierre Maquerlot (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6176

SOURCE: “Julius Caesar and ‘Dramatic Coquetry,’” in Shakespeare and the Mannerist Tradition: A Reading of Five Problem Plays, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 72-86.

[In the following essay, Maquerlot evaluates Julius Caesar as a Mannerist drama fraught with ambiguity, and contends that Shakespeare constantly altered audience sympathies toward Caesar.]

In the second volume of his book on Shakespeare's histories, Professor Paul Bacquet rightly insists on the pedagogical function of the Chorus in Henry V. The role of the Chorus, he argues, is more systematically developed in this play than in any other of the same period, and serves to guide the spectators through the play's various episodes and also to encourage them to perform an act of ‘collective imagination’ without which there would be no dramatic illusion.1

It seems to me that the Chorus' repeated plea to the audience to compensate mentally for the material limitations of stage production serves another equally indispensable, if less obvious, purpose, which is to secure the audience's adherence to the play's ideological message. In Shakespeare's view, the people assembled in the playhouse would be all the more willing to accept that a few square metres of boards in the centre of that wooden ‘O’ might represent the battlefield of Agincourt if they could be made to feel party to the glorious national epic that was being played out before them, for them and, up to a point, thanks to them. Whatever their social rank, cultural origin and religious or political allegiance, the members of the audience—possibly viewed by the dramatist as the epitome of British society or perhaps a peace-time reflection of the King's army—were urged to unite in a shared feeling of patriotic fervour. The special theatrical strategy geared to such an uncommon goal was to enlist them in the actual making of the show so that this rare moment of dramatic experience might also be one of ideological consensus.2

1599 is also, in all probability, the year of Julius Caesar, another history play but one with no Chorus to sustain the audience. Here the spectators are left to themselves and it is up to them alone to construe the meaning of what they see and hear on stage, not such an easy task, as we shall see. British history is no longer at stake. However decisive the murder of Caesar may have been in changing the face of the planet, this momentous event still concerns the ancient world. Ideologically, the play does not require the same emotional commitment from the audience and its progress does not depend on the same type of dramaturgic collaboration. It is enough for the audience to behave ‘normally’—to consent to the usual suspension of disbelief expected at the theatre—to preserve the chances of minimal dramatic illusion.

Like Richard II, Julius Caesar is the story of a conspiracy undertaken in the name of the common weal. But Richard was king, a sacred figure, and his deposition and murder were impious acts. Like Richard's, Caesar's power is legitimate, but, contrary to what he would have the citizens of Rome believe, it is not of divine origin. His murder, therefore, is not technically a sacrilege, except in the minds of those who made him into a god in his own lifetime. Richard was an unworthy ruler and his replacement by Bolingbroke could appear as a measure of public salvation, a morally reprehensible but politically desirable usurpation despite the civil disorder it was bound to kindle. The answer to the question of whether the kingdom gained or lost from this change in dynasty is long in coming: the problem of monarchical legitimacy in the face of reasons of State and the dilemma between the sacred and the political haunt the end of Richard II, the whole of Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2) and occasionally surface again in Henry V. It is only the latter play that turns the scales in favour of the house of Lancaster. As to whether the violent overthrow of Caesar proved beneficial or detrimental to Rome, neither Julius Caesar nor Antony and Cleopatra—the sequel to the former play inasmuch as it dramatizes events subsequent to Caesar's death—offers the least clue. Though the Elizabethans knew, as well as we do, that the fall of Caesar was to give rise to the empire heralded by Octavius' glorious principate, Shakespeare remains conspicuously silent about this, focusing instead upon the convulsions attendant upon the murder, iniquitous proscriptions, the rivalry within the triumvirate, the war against the conspirators and the discords between Brutus and Cassius. Neither in Octavius' final speech nor elsewhere in the play is there a hint that good may eventually come from evil. The crucial issue of whether Caesar's blood was shed for the good or the ill of Rome is deliberately left pending. In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare highlights the event and its immediate consequences, thus enclosing the action within the impassable boundaries of an intensely dramatized present. Thus isolated from past and future, the facts confronting us cannot be fitted into a long-range vision that would give them meaning and relevance in terms of a country's destiny. Ideologically, the spectators of the play are well and truly alone.

Following close upon Henry V, Julius Caesar is yet another exploration of the hero figure. That Shakespeare was turning to Plutarch (via Sir Thomas North) after he had just brought to an epic finale the cycle of plays devoted to national history shows clearly that the theme of the great man still interested him. If antiquity was to supply a hero as prestigious as Henry, the choice naturally lay between Alexander and Caesar.3 The circumstances of Caesar's assassination, the ensuing civil war and the conspirators' defeat offered excellent material for yet another history play structured around three dramatic moments: the hatching of a conspiracy, the execution of a murder and the meting out of retribution to the guilty. Not only could Shakespeare once again furnish the stage with vivid tableaux such as Caesar amid his court, Brutus deliberating with his conscience, Caesar stabbed to death at the foot of Pompey's statue, Brutus' and Antony's celebrated speeches at the market-place or the conspirators' suicide at Philippi, but he could also easily work these spectacular scenes into a unified drama, patterned on the old, still successful formula of the revenge tragedy.

More decisively, perhaps, Shakespeare's preference for the story of Caesar's life accorded well with the direction he was working in after the completion of his two historical tetralogies, namely towards a more curious probing into the complexities of the human mind and soul and a more realistic rendering of the often chaotic life of consciousness together with a more critical appraisal of man's ‘greatness and nobility’, a trend that Hamlet and the dark comedies were soon to exemplify. Shakespeare knew how controversial and enigmatic Caesar had appeared, both to his contemporaries and to succeeding generations. Borrowing from Roman antiquity, he no doubt felt free from the ideological constraints that inevitably impinge on the representation of national history. Furthermore, the story of Julius Caesar offered the advantage of including not one but two heroes in whom greatness and weakness intermingle, thus providing the dramatist with the exciting possibility of counterpointing two forms of heroism, each one marred with its own shortcomings: in Caesar, the glory of the conqueror and statesman tarnished by excessive pride; in Brutus, the integrity of the true republican led astray by political blindness. This dualistic vision, sanctioned by Renaissance historiography, whereby assessment of both personages could only be a qualified one, fitted exactly with Shakespeare's project. In many respects, the subject of Caesar's downfall at the hands of patriots who were diversely (and some of whom were dubiously) motivated carried enough ambiguity to lend itself to Mannerist treatment.

There was yet another advantage which, from a non-Mannerist perspective, would have seemed more like a drawback: no episode of ancient history was better known and more loaded with moral and political glosses than Caesar's rise and fall. His destiny had long been food for thought on the vagaries of Fortune and the ironic proximity of the Capitol to the Tarpeian Rock, revealing the dark face of greatness and the often conflicting demands of civic duty and friendship. Reflecting upon his choice, Shakespeare may well have felt that he was coming too late and that all had been said on the subject. Telling the story of Julius Caesar and of Brutus and his associates could only be a retelling. Substantially altering the facts of history was out of the question, and therefore innovation had to be confined to matters of form. It was as if, from the start, Shakespeare found himself in the position of a composer having to write variations on a canonical theme, a situation of relative constraint or conditional freedom most favourable to a Mannerist approach. When an artist has no other choice but to reproduce what C. G. Dubois calls ‘une thématique magistrale’ (a set of themes sanctioned by the authority of masters) he or she must gear his or her inspiration to ‘the multiplying of forms and proliferating of variations’.4 This incidentally sheds light on the old concept of refurbishing erstwhile successes according to current fashion; what has perhaps too often been taken for sheer opportunism on the part of authors in need of popularity may well evince—in some cases at least—a Mannerist propensity for subversive allegiance. Is it by accident that Hamlet (which is regarded by many as a Mannerist play, if not the epitome of Mannerist dramatic art) proceeds from an Ur-Hamlet? If this theory holds true, Hamlet can be seen as Shakespeare's personal variation upon the traditional formula of the revenge tragedy. Whether Julius Caesar was inspired by an existing play or not is of little importance. Because of the exceptional popularity of the fable, it is History itself, as constituted by the gradual sedimentation of the commentaries, which serves as reference or model. Addressing a subject like this with its compulsory figures (almost in the choreographic sense of the term), Shakespeare was practically forced to seek originality of treatment. More specifically, it is in the Mannerist presentation of the characters that Shakespeare's art is most innovative.

What I designate here as a Mannerist trait, Ernest Schanzer calls ‘dramatic coquetry’. This facetious and telling expression denotes the method whereby the dramatist manipulates our response to the main characters ‘playing fast and loose with our affections for them, engaging and alienating them in turn’.5 Though a similar technique is at work in several other plays, it is never more systematically used than in Julius Caesar. Schanzer has studied in great detail how a succession of images, in turn positive and negative, disconcerts the spectator to the extent that he or she can no longer situate the characters on a scale of moral values. Since Caesar and the conspirators can gain our sympathy or antipathy only transiently and incompletely, the murder itself appears in an ambiguous light. If it is true that Caesar's murder was indeed a political error, was it also a morally reprehensible act? According to Schanzer, this is the central question posed by the play, one that Shakespeare is careful not to answer.

The presence of Mannerism is indicated not by Caesar, Brutus, Cassius and Antony (to mention only the major characters) being alloys of good and evil: this ambivalence is supported by history and can be thought of as inherent to all credible portrayals of human nature. This might even be another example of rhetorical formalism with characteristic effects of binary opposition and symmetrical balancing. That each character should view himself and others from an angle entirely his own is not particularly relevant to Mannerism either. It is not surprising that Caesar as seen by Cassius should not be a faithful mirror image of Caesar as seen by Brutus, even less so by Antony, not to mention Caesar seen by himself or by the audience. All plays and novels containing several characters consist of such sets of mirrors in which images are thus reflected and interconnected. It is through such reverberations that identities are formed. But Mannerist art has the particularity of thwarting this image-making process by maintaining the characters on this side of a true identity. Mannerism discourages us from ever being able to organize into a viable entity—that is, a coherent and credible whole—the pieces of the puzzle scattered before our eyes. Mannerism strives hard to preclude the possibility of a global, unified perception.

Why, when looking at a Mannerist bronze by Giovanni Bologna, are we seized with a desire to inspect it from all angles? As we cannot turn it this way and that, why are we tempted to walk around it as if to discover yet another hitherto unsuspected angle? How is it that having to stand in front of Pontormo's Deposition or Michelangelo's Last Judgement, we commission our gaze, as it were vicariously, to wander over the composition? The answer is that in a Mannerist work where everything attracts the eye, nothing arrests it. No standpoint imposes itself as decisive in procuring the most satisfying vision, which hopefully might best reveal to us the work's ‘truth’. What reasons are there to prefer confronting the statue frontally rather than obliquely? Each point of view appeals to our eye and momentarily frustrates it from the pleasure of discovering what the next point of view would disclose. Unlike classical characters, collected in almost all of their actions and speeches, at all times coextensive with themselves, their Mannerist counterparts are always presented incomplete; they sharpen our curiosity and direct it towards a hypothetical ‘elsewhere’, the hidden face of their being, in the illusory expectation of a revelation of the whole self.

Something analogous to this wandering gaze occurs in Julius Caesar. I shall not restate Schanzer's excellent analyses showing how the characters are split into successive images, either flattering or derogatory, but equally credible. Dramatic coquetry is a dynamics of ambiguity, in that it arouses excitement and disappointment in turn: we believe we grasp the ‘truth’ about a character (on which the meaning of his action depends), only to realize immediately afterwards that it was premature to stop at what was only an aspect, a facet among others. When Caesar dies, we still do not know what we should ‘really’ think about this immensely proud character who swings from the grotesque:

          Danger knows full well
That Caesar is more dangerous than he.
We are two lions litter'd in one day,
And I the elder and more terrible.

II, ii, 44-7

To the sublime:

          constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix'd and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.

III, i, 60-2

Caesar is warm with his friends:

Good friends, go in, and taste some wine with me;
And we, like friends, will straightway go together.

II, ii, 126-7

His irresolution verges on caricature:

Caesar shall forth. The things that threaten'd me
Ne'er look'd but on my back.

II, ii, 10-11

Mark Antony shall say I am not well,
And for thy humour I will stay at home.

II, ii, 55-6

Give me my robe, for I will go.

II, ii, 107

But he is stoical at the thought of his own death:

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.

II, ii, 32-7

His self-centredness is exorbitant:

Decius, go tell them Caesar will not come.
Dec. Most mighty Caesar, let me know some cause,
Lest I be laugh'd at when I tell them so.
Caes. The cause is in my will: I will not come;
That is enough to satisfy the Senate.

II, ii, 68-72

But it is matched by equally uncompromising self-abnegation:

What touches us ourself shall be last serv'd.

III, i, 8

Caesar is superstitious:

Forget not, in your speed, Antonius,
To touch Calphurnia; for our elders say,
The barren, touched in this holy chase,
Shake off their sterile curse.

I, ii, 6-9

Except however when he himself is concerned:

What say'st thou to me now? Speak once again.
Sooth. Beware the ides of March.
Caes. He is a dreamer. Let us leave him. Pass.

I, ii, 22-4

His grasp of human psychology is remarkable and likely, one would think, to caution him against ‘dangerous’ persons:

I do not know the man I should avoid
So soon as that spare Cassius. He reads much,
He is a great observer, and he looks
Quite through the deeds of men. He loves no plays,
As thou dost, Antony; he hears no music.
Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort
As if he mock'd himself, and scorn'd his spirit
That could be mov'd to smile at any thing.
Such men as he be never at heart's ease
Whiles they behold a greater than themselves,
And therefore are they very dangerous.

I, ii, 197-207

Yet his superhuman stature—notwithstanding his physical disabilities—puts him above the fears of common mortals:

I rather tell thee what is to be fear'd
Than what I fear; for always I am Caesar.
Come on my right hand, for this ear is deaf.

I, ii, 208-10

In addition to the images Caesar projects of himself there are those given by the receivers, namely the characters who look at him and judge him. Brutus, like the Plebeian Tribunes, sees in Caesar a potential tyrant:

          a serpent's egg,
Which, hatch'd, would, as his kind, grow mischievous.

II, i, 32-3

The one difference is that Brutus loves Caesar (‘I love him well’, I, ii, 81). Though Brutus detects in Caesar a weakness for honours (‘He would be crown'd’, II, i, 12), he sees him above all as a reasonable man in control of his passions:

I have not known when his affections sway'd
More than his reason.

II, i, 20-1

For Cassius, on the other hand, Caesar is a clay-footed giant:

A man no mightier than thyself, or me,
In personal action, yet prodigious grown,
And fearful, as these strange eruptions are.

I, iii, 76-8

A ‘colossus’ who destroys all hope of honour in his fellow citizens:

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.

I, ii, 133-6

His tyranny, more moral than political, teaches the Romans servility in defiance of their ancestral values:

          our fathers' minds are dead,
And we are govern'd with our mothers' spirits;
Our yoke and sufferance show us womanish.

I, iii, 82-4

The one fleeting image of Caesar given by Antony while the former is alive is that of an authoritarian father figure who knows how to be obeyed:

When Caesar says, ‘Do this’, it is perform'd.

I, ii, 10

Yet he is someone to whom Antony can freely express his disagreement:

Fear him not, Caesar, he's not dangerous.

I, ii, 193

After the death of Caesar, Antony's words depict him as a man who could inspire the strongest friendship:

That I did love thee, Caesar, O, 'tis true!
If then thy spirit look upon us now,
Shall it not grieve thee dearer than thy death,
To see thy Antony making his peace,
Shaking the bloody fingers of thy foes.

III, i, 194-8

He is one whose nobility was incomparable:

Thou art the ruins of the noblest man
That ever lived in the tide of times.

III, i, 256-7

His loss is felt with pain:

          for mine eyes,
Seeing those beads of sorrow stand in thine,
Began to water.

III, i, 283-5

Such effusiveness, the sincerity of which cannot be doubted (unlike Antony's carefully studied posturing during his speech to the citizens at the market-place), evokes the figure of a friend, an aspect authenticated by Brutus himself:

I slew my best lover for the good of Rome.

III, ii, 46

On the negative side of things, the toadying of Caesar's entourage corroborates Cassius' claim that the Romans are overshadowed by Caesar and have abdicated all republican pride. So even Cassius' discourse on Caesar, biased as it is, and dictated, as we know it to be, by hatred and envy, holds elements of truth.

Of all the images that Caesar reflects, and they are diverse and numerous since no one is exposed to the others' gaze as much as Caesar, none is conclusive. The ‘truth’ about Caesar cannot be obtained by sorting out the true and false images, those which apparently bring us closer to the ‘real’ Caesar and those which do not. The truth about Caesar is to be found in every single reflection from these multifaceted mirrors. This helps to understand why the Mannerist method renders obsolete the traditional and rhetorical opposition between appearance and reality, between the mask of the public figure and the face of the private person. As Raymond Willems has neatly written:

It would be vain to look for the ‘true’ Caesar behind the mask of the mythical Caesar. Caesar is not an impostor. He plays a role, of course, but it is his own role. He simply tries to be himself, not to give an embellished image of himself. His play-acting does not therefore tend towards duplicity, but towards the unity of his self. When he proclaims ‘I am Caesar’, it is not vain boasting. The phrase is the expression of the terrible effort he must make to stick to his character. Hence his almost incantory repetition of his own name which has become like a talisman.6

Why introduce this notion of tending towards ‘the unity of the self’? It is because the self is not of the order of the given, but the ever-receding horizon of a never-ending quest, the forever disappointed promise of an illusory cohesion between disparate images.

After this dizzying kaleidoscopic review of the most telling images relating to Caesar, I hesitate to extend it to other characters. Suffice it to say that dramatic coquetry is not confined to Caesar alone. It is a deliberate stand on dramaturgy, a departure in the art of drawing characters and bringing them to life on stage. Shakespeare is Mannerist in so far as he constantly eludes the spectator's expectation of characters clustered around a key image. Like Mannerist painters or sculptors, he repudiates all sense of hierarchy in viewpoints, thus holding up disparity and off-centredness as the structural principles underlying his treatment of characters.

The corollary of this is that the actions themselves are irremediably ambiguous, the best example being the murder of Caesar. Shakespeare does not choose between the two conflicting images of the murder: Brutus' image of murder as sacrifice and Antony's image of butchery. History chooses for him and gives Antony the advantage over Brutus in the contest between images. It is clear that Antony has carried the day when the sacrificial and emblematic blood in which the conspirators have ritually bathed their hands and swords becomes the blood of the massacre, which murderous envy has caused to flow:

Look, in this place ran Cassius' dagger through:
See what a rent the envious Cassius made:
Through this the well-beloved Brutus stabb'd;
And as he pluck'd his cursed steel away,
Mark how the blood of Caesar follow'd it,
As rushing out of doors, to be resolv'd
If Brutus so unkindly knock'd or no.

III, ii, 176-82

Henceforth Antony's image of Caesar's death has supplanted Brutus' in the eyes of the citizens. Shakespeare had no other choice but to ratify the verdict of history, but this does not mean he had to justify it. It is not because the image propagated by Antony proves more credible to ‘the masses who make history’ and more profitable to those who are its privileged actors that Brutus' contrary image is invalidated. In an attempt to make ethics coincide with politics, it has been argued that Brutus' staged ceremony following the assassination of Caesar is a murderer's contrivance, designed to shelter his sensitivity from the unbearable horror of the collective crime, a ritual seen as the dressing up of bad faith.7 I do not share this view. Here Willems is worth quoting again:

To take appearances in hand is not necessarily to use them to deceive. Brutus is concerned about controlling them because he knows they are misleading. He wants to prevent his act from being misunderstood. From this perspective ‘this shall make / Our purpose necessary’ is only apparently paradoxical. According to Brutus' logic, it is the manner of killing Caesar which will give his act its true meaning. If he can convince the other conspirators to consider the murder as a sacrifice, then it will indeed be a sacrifice.8

In the ontological world of Mannerism, truth is a useless hypothesis, only representation matters. The Mannerist artist does not conceive of his or her work differently from the way Brutus looks upon his act: only the manner carries meaning.

If truth is reducible to a vertiginous parade of images which correct, contradict and complement but in no way cancel each other out, what is more tempting than to give oneself over to the impressions of the moment, since each moment expresses a truth? Mildred E. Hartsock thinks that the play is constructed in such a way as to place the spectator in a situation analogous to that of the Roman crowd at the market-place: ‘We are fully committed at every point in the play to someone. Ironically, we have something in common with the Roman mob: we believe what we hear as we hear it, only to be involved in one emotional or intellectual partisanship after another.’9 This opinion should be qualified, or the Mannerist game of dramatic coquetry will be over-simplified. Shakespeare is more subtle, more authentically Mannerist, less of a crude hoaxer than Hartsock supposes. We know that he is careful to ensure that no image can be purely and simply accepted or rejected. Coquetry or flirtatiousness is the art of not taking advances or rebuffs too far, lest the game come to a halt. This is why no character in the play inspires either love or hatred. The Mannerist artist takes care not to play on extremes of emotion, his or her range is voluntarily limited. He or she expects connivance more than participation from the audience, an attitude that is more playful than sentimental, more intellectual than emotional. Baroque characters—say Othello, Lear or Macbeth—violently catch hold of us for better or worse: Mannerist characters intrigue the audience more than inflame them. Even when the Mannerist hero is endowed with a strong presence both textually and scenically (as is the case with Caesar and Hamlet), he is always held at a distance, like an object of curiosity meant to be considered with a careful and critical eye. This is why the pleasure obtained from a Mannerist work always has a streak of narcissism about it, as if much of the enjoyment comes from detecting the irony of the message.

At two decisive moments—before his departure to the Senate and before the murder—Caesar indulges in a fit of self-aggrandizement, almost disowning his human nature, first through an animal metaphor (the image of the two lions already mentioned), and then through a cosmic simile which develops into a whole tirade:

But I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix'd and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
The skies are painted with unnumber'd sparks,
They are all fire, and every one doth shine;
But there's but one in all doth hold his place.
So in the world: 'tis furnis'd well with men,
And men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive;
Yet in the number I do know but one
That unassailable holds on his rank,
Unshak'd of motion; and that I am he,
Let me a little show it, even in this,
That I was constant Cimber should be banish'd,
And constant do remain to keep him so.

III, i, 60-73

T. S. Dorsch rightly sees in this speech an outburst of pride caused by the servility of Metellus and Cassius, come to plead the cause of Publius Cimber. But such arrogance, he claims, triggers so much antipathy among Caesar's entourage and the audience that the forthcoming murder appears almost justifiable.10 I do not find this psychological interpretation of causes and effects entirely convincing. If this be pride, it is the legitimate pride of a monarch, something that an Elizabethan audience would not consider as grossly ‘extravagant’ as we do today. Shakespeare is not trying to justify the murder beforehand by making Caesar especially odious. A more plausible explanation that does justice to Caesar's self-coined image of superhuman infallibility is that Shakespeare is here presenting the murder as a truly political option rather than the outcome of accumulated personal grudges or resentments. Richard Marienstras' comment on this episode is very much to the point: ‘this political murder, this sacrifice, the fall of this star, for one moment appears as an attempt to replace an inhuman cosmic order by an order of another nature, governed by the will of men and by social ethics founded purely on contract’.11 The irony, therefore, is not exactly where Dorsch believes it to be found. It stems from the fact that it is Caesar himself, in his use of cosmic imagery to illustrate his ‘constancy’, who confirms the need for the conspirators to rid themselves of that inhuman authority of superterrestrial nature. In a pagan context, where the monarch's power does not proceed from God (meaning the Judaeo-Christian God), it is by no means impious to prefer a contract to an order founded on transcendence, which, in any case, is not of divine essence. By comparing himself to the pole star, the fixed point par excellence and keystone of the cosmos, Caesar had no notion of the extent to which he was playing into the conspirators' hands: this concept was precisely what they wanted to destroy.

As for the mini-parable of the two lions, through which Caesar expresses his contempt of danger, it shows almost in caricature how arrogance can sink into ridicule; danger is first the object of an unspecified personification (‘Danger knows full well …’), then what might pass as a fairly bad flash of wit (‘Caesar is more dangerous than’ Danger itself) becomes a grotesque metaphor—Caesar and Danger are two lions ‘litter'd in one day’, but Caesar is ‘the elder and more terrible’ of the two. Calphurnia is right: excessive self-confidence causes her husband to rave. When Caesar presents himself as a fierce, invulnerable being, he only succeeds in prefiguring what could appear as a form of senility. When he proclaims himself as ‘constant’ as the pole star, he unveils the inanity of such pretensions when they are embodied in a mortal being. A few stabs will suffice—and what conspirator does not think of this when listening to Caesar—to turn this figure of immortality into a ‘bleeding piece of earth’. Similarly, it is when Brutus professes honesty most vehemently that he is the least convincing:

There is no terror, Cassius, in your threats;
For I am arm'd so strong in honesty
That they pass by me as the idle wind,
Which I respect not.

IV, iii, 66-9

Such Caesar-like grandiloquence sounds strained and suggests that Brutus, like Caesar, has to struggle to live up to his own legend. These characters are engaged in the construction of their own myths. In everything they say and do, in the day-after-day management of the images they wish to convey of themselves, they have to take into account what history and legend have already made of them.

But in this play that is fraught with ambiguity, are there any moments when we are tempted to commit ourselves unreservedly to a character, if only for the time he speaks? At the market-place, before the crowd, Brutus expounds his reasons for having killed Caesar, with the vigorous clarity of his Lacedaemonian style. We might almost be convinced, thus imitating the citizens, as Hartsock would have it. Unlike Antony's succeeding oration, Brutus' speech strikes us as being basically honest, the opposite of manipulation. Yet one sentence at the end throws everything into doubt:

The question of his death is enroll'd in the Capitol; his glory not extenuated, wherein he was worthy; nor his offences enforc'd, for which he suffered death.

III, ii, 38-41

Brutus blames Caesar for errors already committed and turns the murder into a punishment, in blatant contradiction to the preventive murder theory he had developed in Act II:

          And since the quarrel
Will bear no colour for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus: that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities.

II, i, 28-31

What can justify this double language? Why does Brutus change from sacrificer to avenger or righter of wrongs? Is there a version of the murder for private use, his own and his associates', and another for public use, that of the Plebeians, whom the first version had no chance of convincing? What spectators would want to identify with this credulous, changeable and over-emotional crowd who is debarred from knowing the ins and outs of the affair?

The market scene is placed right in the middle of the play; it does indeed have an emblematic value, though not perhaps the one suggested by Hartsock. My hypothesis is that Brutus' and Antony's orations are theatrical pieces; the tribune is their stage and the Roman citizens are their spectators, a feverish, fascinated and easily manipulated audience, the very opposite of the sort of audience that Shakespeare would have wished for his own play. Through an act of negative symbolization strategically performed at the very core of Julius Caesar, Shakespeare treats his own audience to a show of irony aimed at a category of spectators he esteems incapable of reacting suitably to the subtleties of Mannerist theatre, and this brings me back to my starting-point which was the playwright's attitude to his audience. In Henry V, Shakespeare expected from them a sustained collaboration in the drama; he asked them to provide thought-out and voluntary support from the heart and mind, unlike the irrational, inconstant, follow-the-leader attitude of the Plebeians enslaved to their urges of the moment. Conversely, it is a totally receptive, totally free, totally critical audience that is needed for Julius Caesar, where ambiguity reigns, where dramatic coquetry feeds theatrical pleasure. But what use is to be made of such liberty and lucidity? To indulge without illusion in the Mannerist game of engagement and disengagement and to eschew the trap of images no further than the game requires, Shakespeare wants his audience to be astute enough to appreciate the ambivalence of words and situations, civilized enough both to understand the value of poetry and, unlike the Roman frenzied mob, not to kill the poet.


  1. Paul Bacquet, Les pièces historiques de Shakespeare, 2 vols., Paris, 1979, vol. II, p. 156.

  2. I do not find anything in the text to substantiate the view held by Bacquet and some other critics that the Epilogue spoken by the Chorus invites the audience to look back upon the King as an ultimately ineffectual warmonger, because France came to be lost under the next king. It seems to me that Henry remains ‘this star of England’ to the very end of the play, though Shakespeare's portrayal of him throughout the play is often touched with irony. The Chorus insists that Henry's valour is not to be ascribed to his personal merits only, but also to Fortune (‘Fortune made his sword’), and as expected Fortune turns her wheel against Henry VI, his successor. In fact, the Chorus' last speech serves to put the glorious reign of Henry V in a double perspective: the unfolding of history, which is pre-eminently the site of Fortune's whimsical doings, and the sequence of the Histories ‘which oft our stage hath shown’. It is part of the Chorus' pedagogical function to conclude the play on such a relativistic note.

  3. See the Prologue to Act v in Henry V, in which the Chorus likens Henry's return to London from his wars in France to Caesar's return to Rome from his wars in Gaul. In Act v, scene vii, Fluellen and Gower compare Henry with Alexander the Great.

  4. C. G. Dubois, Le maniérisme, Paris, 1979, p. 38.

  5. E. Schanzer, The Problem Plays of Shakespeare, London, 1951, p. 70.

  6. R. Willems, ‘Ambiguïté et identité dans Julius Caesar’, in Aspects du théâtre anglosaxon, Publication de l'Université de Rouen, 1981, p. 79.

  7. This is the opinion notably of Brents Sterling in Unity in Shakespearean Tragedy, New York, 1956.

  8. Willems, ‘Ambiguïté et identité dans Julius Caesar’, p. 82.

  9. Mildred E. Hartsock, ‘The Complexity of Julius Caesar’, PMLA, 81, March 1966, p. 61.

  10. T. S. Dorsch (ed.), Julius Caesar (Arden edn), London, 1955; 1977 edn, pp. xix-xx.

  11. R. Marienstras, Le proche et le lointain, Paris, 1981, p. 92 (my translation). The book has been published in English under the title New Perspectives on the Shakespearean World, Cambridge, 1985; the passage quoted is p. 60.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5584

SOURCE: “The Modernity of Julius Caesar,” in Everybody's Shakespeare: Reflections Chiefly on the Tragedies, University of Nebraska Press, 1993, pp. 91-106.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1981, Mack concentrates on the modern view of history presented in Julius Caesar—a conception of history as a process guided principally by nonrational forces rather than by reason, idealism, or conscious human influence.]


In a tribute composed to introduce the collection of plays that we now call the First Folio, Shakespeare's fellow playwright Ben Jonson spoke of his colleague's works as not of an age but for all time. Though the compliment was something of a commonplace in Renaissance funerary rhetoric, it has proved to be remarkably clairvoyant, at least up to the present hour. And of no play, perhaps, has the continuing relevance been more striking than that of Julius Caesar, which again and again twentieth-century directors and producers have successfully presented as a parable for our days.

Among the many aspects of the play that contribute to its modernity, one in particular, to my mind, stands out, and it is to this exclusively, leaving out much, that I want to call attention here. The place to begin is the second scene.

We have just learned from scene I of Caesar's return in triumph from warring on Pompey's sons. We have seen the warm though fickle adulation of the crowd and the apprehension of the tribunes. Now we are to see the great man himself. The procession enters to triumphal music; with hubbub of a great press of people; with young men stripped for the ceremonial races, among them Antony; with statesmen in their togas: Decius, Cicero, Brutus, Cassius, Casca; with the two wives Calphurnia and Portia; and, in the lead, for not even Calphurnia is permitted at his side, the great man. As he starts to speak, an expectant hush settles over the gathering. What does the great man have on his mind?

Caesar: Calphurnia.
Casca: Peace, ho! Caesar speaks.
Caesar: Calphurnia.
Calphurnia: Here, my lord.
Caesar: Stand you directly in Antonius' way
When he doth run his course. Antonius.
Antony: Caesar, my lord?
Caesar: Forget not in your speed, Antonius,
To touch Calphurnia; for our elders say,
The barren, touched in this holy chase,
Shake off their sterile curse.
Antony: I shall remember.
When Caesar says, “Do this,” it is performed.


What the great man had on his mind, it appears, was to remind his wife, in this public place, that she is sterile; that there is an old tradition about how sterility can be removed; and that while of course he is much too sophisticated to accept such a superstition himself—it is “our elders” who say it—still, Calphurnia had jolly well better get out there and get tagged!

Then the procession takes up again. The hubbub is resumed, but once more an expectant silence settles as a voice is heard.

Soothsayer: Caesar!
Caesar: Ha! Who calls?
Casca: Bid every noise be still. Peace yet again!
Caesar: Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue shriller than all the music
Cry “Caesar!” Speak. Caesar is turned to hear.
Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March.
Caesar: What man is that?
Brutus: A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.
Caesar: Set him before me; let me see his face.
Cassius: Fellow, come from the throng; look upon Caesar.
Caesar: What say'st thou to me now? Speak once again.
Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March.
Caesar: He is a dreamer. Let us leave him. Pass.


It is easy to see from even these small instances, I think, how a first-rate dramatic imagination works. There is no hint of any procession in Plutarch, Shakespeare's source. “Caesar,” says Plutarch, “sat to behold.”1 There is no mention of Calphurnia in Plutarch's account of the Lupercalian race, and there is no mention anywhere of her sterility. Shakespeare, in nine lines, has given us an unforgettable picture of a man who would like to be emperor, pathetically concerned that he lacks an heir, and determined, even at the cost of making his wife a public spectacle, to establish that this is owing to no lack of virility in him. The first episode thus dramatizes instantaneously what I take to be the oncoming theme of the play: that a man's will is not enough; that there are other matters to be reckoned with, like the infertility of one's wife, or one's own affliction of the falling sickness that spoils everything one hoped for just at the instant when one had it almost in one's hand. Brutus will be obliged to learn this lesson too.

In the second episode the theme develops. We see again the uneasy rationalism that everybody in this play affects; we hear it reverberate in the faint contempt—almost a challenge—of Brutus's words as he turns to Caesar: “A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.” Yet underneath, in the soothsayer's quiet defiance as he refuses to quail under Caesar's imperious gaze, and in his soberly reiterated warning, Shakespeare allows us to catch a hint of something else, something far more primitive and mysterious, from which rationalism in this play keeps trying vainly to cut itself away: “He is a dreamer. Let us leave him. Pass.” Only we in the audience are in a position to see that the dreamer has foretold the path down which all these reasoners will go to their fatal encounter at the Capitol.

Meantime, in these same two episodes, we have learned something about the character of Caesar. In the first, it was the Caesar of human frailties who spoke to us, the husband with his hopeful superstition. In the second, it was the marble superman of state, impassive, impervious, speaking of himself in the third person: “Speak! Caesar is turned to hear.” He even has the soothsayer brought before his face to repeat the message, as if the thought that somehow, in awe of the marble presence, the message would falter and dissolve: how can a superman need to beware the ides of March?

We hardly have time to do more than glimpse here a man of divided selves, then he is gone. But in his absence, the words of Cassius confirm our glimpse. Cassius's description of him exhibits the same duality that we had noticed earlier. On the one hand, an extremely ordinary man whose stamina in the swimming match was soon exhausted; who, when he had a fever once in Spain, shook and groaned like a sick girl; who even now, as we soon learn, is falling down with epilepsy in the market place. On the other hand, a being who has somehow become a god, who “bears the palm alone,” who “bestrides the narrow world Like a colossus” (1.2.135). When the procession returns, no longer festive but angry, tense, there is the same effect once more. Our one Caesar shows a normal man's suspicion of his enemies, voices some shrewd human observations about Cassius, says to Antony, “Come on my right hand, for this ear is deaf” (1.2.213). Our other Caesar says, as if he were suddenly reminded of something he had forgotten, “I rather tell thee what is to be feared Than what I fear, for always I am Caesar” (1.2.211).

Wherever Caesar appears hereafter, we shall find this distinctive division in him, and nowhere more so than in the scene in which he receives the conspirators at his house. Some aspects of this scene seem calculated for nothing other than to fix upon our minds the superman conception, the Big Brother of Orwell's 1984, the great resonant name echoing down the halls of time. Thus at the beginning of the scene:

                              The things that threatened me
Ne'er looked but on my back. When they shall see
The face of Caesar, they are vanishèd.


And again later:

                              Danger knows full well
That Caesar is more dangerous than he.
We are two lions littered in one day,
And I the elder and more terrible.


And again still later: “Shall Caesar send a lie?” (2.2.65). And again: “The cause is in my will: I will not come.” (2.2.71)

Other aspects of this scene, including his concern about Calphurnia's dream, his vacillation about going to the senate house, his anxiety about the portents of the night, plainly mark out his human weaknesses. Finally, as is the habit in this Rome, he puts the irrational from him that his wife's intuitions and her dream embody; he accepts the rationalization of the irrational that Decius skillfully manufactures, and, as earlier at the Lupercalia, hides from himself his own vivid sense of forces that lie beyond the will's control by attributing it to her:

How foolish do your fears seem now, Calphurnia!
I am ashamèd I did yield to them.
Give me my robe, for I will go.



So far we have looked at Caesar, the title personage of the play and its historical center. It is time now to consider Brutus, the play's tragic center, whom we also find to be a divided man—“poor Brutus,” to use his own phrase, “with himself at war” (1.2.46). That war, we realize as the scene progresses, is a conflict between a quiet, essentially domestic and loving nature, and a powerful integrity expressing itself in a sense of honorable duty to the commonweal. This duality is what Cassius probes in his long disquisition about the mirror. The Brutus looking into the glass that Cassius figuratively holds up to him, the Brutus of this moment, now, in Rome, is a grave studious private man, of a wonderfully gentle temper as we shall see again and again later on; very slow to passion, as Cassius's ill-concealed disappointment in having failed to kindle him to an immediate response reveals; a man whose sensitive nature recoils at the hint of violence lurking in some of Cassius's speeches, just as he has already recoiled at going with Caesar to the market place, to witness the mass hysteria of clapping hands, sweaty nightcaps, and stinking breath. This is the present self that looks into Cassius's mirror.

The image that looks back out, that Cassius wants him to see, the potential other Brutus, is the man of public spirit, worried already by his uncertainty about Caesar's intentions, lineal descendant of an earlier Brutus who drove a would-be monarch from the city, a republican whose body is visibly stiffening in our sight at each huzza from the Forum, and whose anxiety, though he makes no reply to Cassius's inflammatory language, keeps bursting to the surface: “What means this shouting? I do fear the people Choose Caesar for their king” (1.2.79). The problem at the tragic center of the play, we begin to sense, is the tug of private versus public, the individual versus a world he never made, any citizen anywhere versus the selective service greetings that history is always mailing out to each of us. And this problem is to be traversed by the other tug this scene presents, between the irrational and the rational, the destiny we imagine we can control and the destiny that sweeps all before it.

Through 1.2, Brutus's patriotic self, the self that responds to these selective service greetings, is no more than a reflection in a mirror, a mere anxiety in his own brain, about which he refuses to confide, even to Cassius. In 2.1, we see the public self making further headway. First, there is Brutus's argument with himself about the threat of Caesar, and in his conclusion that Caesar must be killed we note how far his private self—he is, after all, one of Caesar's closest friends—has been invaded by the self of public spirit. From here on, the course of the invasion accelerates. A letter comes, tossed from the public world into the private world, into Brutus's garden, addressing, as Cassius had, the patriot image reflected in the mirror: “Brutus, thou sleep'st. Awake, and see thyself!” (2.1.46). Then follows the well-known brief soliloquy (which Shakespeare was to expand into the whole play of Macbeth), showing us that Brutus's mind has moved on from the phase of decision to the inquietudes that follow decision:

Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream.


Brutus anticipates here the dreamlike mood and motion with which Macbeth moves to the murder of Duncan. What is important to observe, however, is that these lines again stress the gulf that separates motive from action, that which is interior in man and controllable by his will from that which, once acted, becomes independent of him and moves with a life of its own. This gulf is a no man's land, a phantasma, a hideous dream.

Finally, there arrives in such a form that no audience can miss it the actual visible invasion itself, as this peaceful garden-quiet is intruded on by knocking, like the knocking of fate in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, and by men with faces hidden in their cloaks. Following this, a lovely interlude with Portia serves to emphasize how much the private self, the private world, has been shattered. There is something close to discord here—as much of a discord as these gentle people are capable of—and though there is a reconciliation at the end and Brutus's promise to confide in her soon, this division in the family is an omen. So is the knock of the latecomer, Caius Ligarius, which reminds us once again of the exactions of the public life. And when Ligarius throws off his sick man's kerchief on learning that there is an honorable exploit afoot, we may see in it an epitome of the whole scene, a graphic visible renunciation, like Brutus's (or like Prince Hal's at about the same time in Shakespeare's career) of the private good to the public; and we may see this also in Brutus's own exit a few lines later, not into the inner house where Portia waits for him, but out into the thunder and lightning of the public life of Rome. It is not without significance that at our final glimpse of Portia, two scenes later, she too stands outside the privacy of the house, her mind wholly occupied with thoughts of what is happening at the Capitol, trying to put on a public self for Brutus's sake: “Run, Lucius, and commend me to my lord; Say I am merry …” (2.4.44).


Meantime, at the Capitol, the tragic center and the historical center meet. The suspense is very great as Caesar, seeing the Soothsayer in the throng, reminds him that the ides of March are come, and receives in answer, “Ay, Caesar, but not gone” (3.1.2). More suspense is generated as Artemidorus presses forward with the paper that we know contains a full discovery of the plot. Decius, apprehensive, steps quickly into the breach with another paper, a petition from Trebonius. More suspense still as Popilius sidles past Cassius with the whisper, “I wish your enterprise today may thrive” (3.1.13), and then moves on to Caesar's side, where he engages him in animated talk. But they detect no tell-tale change in Caesar's countenance; Trebonius steps into his assignment and takes Antony aside; Metellus Cimber throws himself at Caesar's feet; Brutus gives the signal to “Press near and second him” (3.1.29), and Caesar's “Are we all ready?” (3.1.31) draws every eye to Caesar's chair. One by one they all kneel before this demigod—an effective tableau which gives a coloring of priest-like ritual to what they are about to do. Caesar is to bleed, but, as Brutus has said, they will sublimate the act into a sacrifice:

Let's kill him boldly but not wrathfully;
Let's carve him as a dish fit for the gods,
Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds.


In performance, everything in the scene will reflect this ceremonial attitude to emphasize the almost fatuous cleavage between the spirit of the enterprise and its bloody result.

The Caesar we are permitted to see as all this ceremony is preparing will be almost entirely the superman, for obvious reasons. To give a color of justice to Brutus's act, even if we happen to think the assassination a mistake as many members of an Elizabethan audience emphatically would, Caesar must be seen in a mood of super-humanity at least as fatuous as the conspirators' mood of sacrifice. Hence Shakespeare makes him first of all insult Metellus Cimber: “If thou dost bend and pray and fawn for him, I spurn thee like a cur” (3.1.45), and then comment with intolerable pomposity—in fact, blasphemy—on his own iron resolution, which he alleges to be immovable even by prayer and thus superior to the very gods. Finally, Shakespeare puts into his mouth one of those supreme arrogances that can hardly fail to remind us of the ancient adage “Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad.” “Hence!” Caesar cries, “Wilt thou lift up Olympus?” (3.1.74). It is at just this point, when the colossus Caesar drunk with self-importance is before us, that Casca strikes. Then they all strike, with a last blow that brings out for the final time the other, human side of this double Caesar: “Et tu, Brute?” (3.1.77).

And now this little group of men has altered history. The representative of the evil direction it was taking toward autocratic power lies dead before them. The direction to which it must be restored becomes emphatic in Cassius's cry of “Liberty, freedom, and enfranchisement!” (3.1.81). Solemnly, and again like priests who have just sacrificed a victim, they kneel together and bathe their hands and swords in Caesar's blood. Brutus exclaims:

Then walk we forth, even to the market place,
And waving our red weapons o'er our heads,
Let's all cry, “Peace, freedom, and liberty!”


If the conjunction of those red hands and weapons with this slogan is not enough to give an audience a start, the next passage will; for now the conspirators explicitly invoke the judgment of history on their deed. On the stages of theaters the world over, so they anticipate, this lofty incident will be re-enacted, and

                              So oft as that shall be,
So often shall the knot of us be called
The men that gave their country liberty.


We in the audience, recalling what actually did result in Rome—the civil wars, the long line of despotic emperors—cannot miss the irony of their prediction, an irony that insists on our recognizing that this effort to control the consequences of an act is doomed to fail. (It is a theme that Shakespeare will touch again in Macbeth and Lear.) Why does it fail?

One reason why is shown us in the next few moments. The leader of this assault on history, like many another reformer, is a man of high idealism, who devoutly believes that the rest of the world is like himself. It was just to kill Caesar—so he persuades himself—because he was a threat to freedom. It would not have been just to kill Antony, and he vetoes the idea. Even now, when the consequence of that decision has come back to face him in the shape of Antony's servant kneeling before him, he sees no reason to reconsider it. There are good grounds for what they have done, he says; Antony will hear them, and be satisfied. With Antony, who shortly arrives in person, he takes this line again:

Our reasons are so full of good regard
That were you, Antony, the son of Caesar
You should be satisfied.


With equal confidence in the reasonableness of human nature, he puts by Cassius's fears of what Antony will do if allowed to address the people: “By your pardon; I will myself into the pulpit first And show the reason of our Caesar's death” (3.1.236). Here is a man so much a friend of Caesar's that he is still speaking of him as “our Caesar,” so capable of rising to what he takes to be his duty that he has taken on the leadership of those who killed him, so trusting of common decency that he expects the populace will respond to reason, and Antony to honor the obligation laid on him by their permitting him to speak. At such a man, one hardly knows whether to laugh or cry.

The same mixture of feelings is likely to be stirring in us as Brutus speaks to the people in 3.2. As everybody knows, this is a speech in what used to be called the great liberal tradition, which assumes that men in the mass are reasonable. It has therefore been made a prose oration, spare and terse in diction, tightly patterned in syntax so that it requires close attention, and founded, with respect to its argument, on three elements: the abstract sentiment of duty to the state (because he endangered Rome, Caesar had to be slain); the abstract sentiment of political justice (because he had delusions of grandeur, Caesar deserved his fall); and the moral authority of the man Brutus.

As long as that moral authority is concretely before them in Brutus's presence, the populace is impressed. But since even trained minds do not always respond well to abstractions, they quite misunderstand the content of his argument, as one of them indicates by shouting, “Let him be Caesar!” (3.2.41). What moves them is the obvious sincerity and the known integrity of the speaker; and when he finishes, they are ready to carry him off on their shoulders on that account alone, leaving Antony a vacant Forum. The fair-mindedness of Brutus is thrilling but painful to behold as he calms this triumphal surge in his favor, urges them to stay and hear Antony, and then, in a moment very impressive dramatically as well as symbolically, walks off the stage, alone. We see then, if we have not seen before, a possible first answer to the question why the effort to take control of history failed as it so often does, blinkered by its own idealism.


When Antony takes the rostrum, we sense a possible second answer. It has been remarked that in a school for demagogues this speech should be the whole curriculum. Antony himself describes its method when he observes in the preceding scene, apropos of the effect of Caesar's dead body on the messenger from Octavius, “Passion, I see, is catching” (3.1.283). A statement that cannot be made about reason, as many of us learn to our cost.

Antony's speech differs from Brutus's as night from day. Brutus formulates from the outset positive propositions about Caesar and about his own motives on no other authority than his own. Because of his known integrity, Brutus can do this. Antony takes the safer alternative of concealing propositions in questions, by which the audience's mind is then guided to conclusions which seem its own:

He hath brought many captives home to Rome,
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill.
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?


You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: Was this ambition?


How well Shakespeare knew crowds becomes clear in the replies to Antony. Brutus, appealing to reason, is greeted with wild outbursts of emotion: “Let him be Caesar!” Antony appeals only to emotion and pocketbooks, but now they say, “Methinks there is much reason in his sayings,” and chew upon it seriously.

With equal skill, Antony stirs up impulses only to thwart them. He appeals to curiosity and greed in the matter of the will, but then withholds it teasingly. In the same manner, he stirs up rage against the conspirators while pretending to dampen it (3.2.151): “I fear I wrong the honorable men Whose daggers have stabbed Caesar; I do fear it.” Finally, he rests his case, not, like Brutus, on abstractions centering in the state and political justice, but on emotions centering in the individual listener. The first great crescendo of the speech, which culminates in the passage on Caesar's wounds, appeals first to pity and then to indignation. The second, culminating in the reading of Caesar's will, appeals first to curiosity and greed, then to gratitude.

His management of the will is particularly cunning: it is an item more concrete than words, an actual tantalizing document that can be flashed before the eye, as in many a modern political TV sound byte. He describes it at first vaguely, as being of such a sort that they would honor Caesar for it. Then, closer home, as something which would show “how Caesar loved you” (3.2.141). Then, with an undisguised appeal to self-interest, as a testament that will make them his “heirs.” The emotions aroused by this news enable him to make a final test of his ironical refrain about “honorable men,” and finding the results all that he had hoped, he can come down now among the crowd as one of them, and appeal directly to their feelings by appealing to his own: “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now” (3.2.169).

The power of this direct appeal to passion can be seen at its close. Where formerly we had a populace, now we have a mob. As a mob, its mind can be sealed against later recoveries of rationality by the insinuation that all reasoning is simply a surface covering up private grudges, like the “reason” they have heard from Brutus; whereas from Antony himself, the plain, blunt friend of Caesar, they are getting the plain, blunt truth and (a favorite trick) only what they already know.

So they are called back to hear the will. Antony no longer needs this as an incentive to riot; the mingled rage and pity he has aroused will take care of that. But, after the lynching when the hangover comes, and you are remembering how that fellow looked, swaying a little on the rope's end, with his eyes bugging out and the veins knotted at his temples, then it is good to have something really reasonable to cling to, like seventy-five drachmas (or thirty pieces of silver) and some orchards along a river.

By this point, we can fully understand that a further ground for the failure of the effort to control history is what has been left out of account—what all these Romans from the beginning, except Antony, have been trying to leave out of account: the phenomenon of feeling, one of many nonrational factors in the life of men, in the life of the world, in the processes of history itself—of which this blind infuriated mob is one kind of exemplification. Too secure in his own fancied suppression of this influence, Brutus has failed altogether to reckon with its power. Thus he could seriously say to Antony in the passage quoted earlier: Antony, even if you were “the son of Caesar You should be satisfied,” as if the feeling of a son for a murdered father could ever be “satisfied” by reasons. And thus, too, urging the crowd to hear Antony, he could walk off the stage alone, the very figure of embodied “reason,” unaware that only the irrational is catching.

Meantime, the scene of the mob tearing Cinna the Poet to pieces simply for having the same name as one of the conspirators (3.3) confirms the victory of unreason and gives us our first taste of the chaos invoked by Antony when he stood alone over Caesar's corpse. Now, reconsidering that prediction and this mob, we recognize a third reason why attempts to direct the course of history have usually failed. We have seen already that history is only minimally responsive to noble motives, only minimally responsive to rationality. Now we see clearly what was hinted in the beginning by those two episodes with Calphurnia and the soothsayer—that it is only minimally responsive to conscious human influence of any sort. With all their reasons, the conspirators and Caesar only carried out what the soothsayer foreknew. There is, in short—at least as this play sees it—a degree of determinism in history, whether we call it cultural, fatal, or providential, which helps to shape our ends, “Roughhew them how we will” (Hamlet, 5.2.11). One of the alternative names of that factor in this play is Caesarism, cult of the ever regenerating Will to Power. Brutus puts the point, all unconsciously, when the conspirators are gathered at his house:

We all stand up against the spirit of Caesar,
And in the spirit of men there is no blood.
O that we then could come by Caesar's spirit,
And not dismember Caesar! But, alas,
Caesar must bleed for it.


Then Caesar does bleed for it; but his spirit, as Brutus's own remark might have told him, proves invulnerable. It is simply set free by his assassination, and now, as Antony says, “ranging for revenge, … Shall in these confines with a monarch's voice Cry ‘Havoc’ and let slip the dogs of war” (3.1.270).


The rest of the play is self-explanatory. It is clear all through Acts 4 and 5 that Brutus and Cassius are defeated before they begin to fight. Antony knows it and says so at 5.1. Cassius knows it too. Cassius, an Epicurean in philosophy and therefore one who has never heretofore believed in omens, now mistrusts his former rationalism: he suspects there may be something after all in those ravens, crows, and kites that wheel overhead. Brutus too mistrusts his rationalism. As a Stoic, his philosophy requires him to repudiate suicide, but he admits to Cassius that if the need comes he will repudiate philosophy instead. This, like Cassius' statement, is an unconscious admission of the force of the non-rational in human affairs, a non-rational influence that makes its presence felt again and again during the great battle. Cassius, for instance, fails to learn in time that Octavius “Is overthrown by noble Brutus' power” (5.3.52), becomes the victim of a mistaken report of Titinius's death, runs on his sword crying, “Caesar, thou art revenged” (5.3.45), and is greeted, dead, by Brutus, in words that make still clearer their defeat by a power unforeseen: “O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet! Thy spirit walks abroad and turns our swords In our own proper entrails” (5.3.94). In the same vein, when it is Brutus's turn to die, we learn that the ghost of Caesar has reappeared, and he thrusts the sword home, saying, “Caesar, now be still” (5.5.50).

Among the many topics on which Shakespeare casts a cold eye in this short play—among them the nature of heroism, the toll that public life exacts, the legitimacy of power, the danger of violent change (this last especially relevant in 1599 because of the growing concern for the succession after the aging Queen should die)—the aspect that seems to me to account best for its hold on audiences in our totalitarian century of putsches, coups, and assassinations is its stress on the always ambiguous relation between humankind and history. During the first half of the play, what we are chiefly conscious of is the human will as a force in history—men making choices, controlling events. Our typical scenes are 1.2, where a man is trying to make up his mind; or 2.1, where a man first reaches a decision and then, with his fellows, lays plans to implement it; or 2.2, where we have Decius Brutus persuading Caesar to decide to go to the senate house; or 3.1 and 3.2, where up through the assassination, and even up through Antony's speech, men are still, so to speak, impinging on history, moulding it to their conscious will.

But then comes a change. Though we still have men in action trying to mould their world (or else we would have no play at all), one senses a real shift in the direction of the impact. We begin to feel the insufficiency of noble aims, for history is also consequences; the insufficiency of reason and rational expectation, for the ultimate consequences of an act in history are unpredictable, and usually, by all human standards, illogical as well; and finally, the insufficiency of the human will itself, for there is always something to be reckoned with that is nonhuman and inscrutable—Nemesis, Moira, Fortuna, the Parcae, Providence, Determinism: men have had many names for it, but it is always there. Accordingly, in the second half of the play, our typical scenes are those like 3.3, where Antony has raised something that is no longer under his control or anyone's. Or like 4.1, where we see men acting as if, under the thumb of expediency or necessity or call it what you will, they no longer had wills of their own but prick down the names of nephews and brothers indiscriminately for slaughter. Or like 4.3 and all the scenes thereafter, where we are constantly made to feel that Cassius and Brutus are in the hands of something bigger than they know.

In this light, we can see readily enough why it is that Shakespeare gives Julius Caesar a double character. The dilemma in all violence is that the human Caesar who has human ailments and is a human friend is the Caesar who can be killed. Whereas the marmoreal Caesar, the everlasting Big Brother, must repeatedly be killed but never dies because he lurks in each of us and all together. Any political system is a potential Rome, and there is no reason for the citizen of any country, when he reads or watches a production of Julius Caesar, to imagine that this is ancient history.


  1. Shakespeare's Plutarch, ed. C. F. Tucker Brooke, 2 vols. (Haskell House reprint, New York, 1966), 1:92.

Jan H. Blits (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8105

SOURCE: “Politics and the Ethics of Intention: Brutus' Glorious Failure,” in The End of the Ancient Republic: Essays on ‘Julius Caesar,’ Carolina Academic Press, 1982, pp. 39-61.

[In the following essay, Blits studies the motivations of Brutus, and finds that in his inability to reconcile virtue and political action, Brutus ultimately fails to realize his idealized intentions for Rome.]

Edward Gibbon, the historian of Rome, begins his study of Brutus by drawing attention to the wide discrepancy between his illustrious reputation for patriotic virtue and his actual contribution to his country:

The memory of Caesar, celebrated as it is, has not been transmitted down to posterity with such uniform and encreasing applause as that of his Patriot Assassin. Marc Antony acknowledged the rectitude of his Intentions. Augustus refused to violate his Statues. All the great Writers of the succeeding Age, enlarged on his Praises, and more than two hundred Years after the Establishment of the Imperial Government the Character of Brutus was studied as the Perfect Idea of Roman Virtue. In England as in France, in modern Italy as in ancient Rome, his name has always been mentioned with Respect by the Adherents of Monarchy, and pronounced with Enthusiasm by the Friends of Freedom. It may seem rash and invidious to appeal from the Sentence of Ages; yet surely I may be permitted to enquire, in what consisted The Divine Virtue of Brutus?

The few Patriots, who by a bold and well concerted Enterprize, have delivered their Country from foreign or domestic Slavery, [among whom Gibbon includes “the elder Brutus”] … excite the warmest Sensations of Esteem and Gratitude in those breasts which feel for the interest of Mankind. But the Design of the younger Brutus was vast and perhaps impracticable, the Execution feeble and unfortunate. Neither as a Statesman nor as a General did Brutus ever approve himself equal to the arduous task he had so rashly undertaken, of restoring the Commonwealth; instead of restoring it, the Death of a mild and generous Usurper produced only a series of Civil Wars, and the Reign of three Tyrants whose union and whose discord were alike fatal to the Roman People.

The sagacious Tully often laments that he could be pleased with nothing in the Ides of March, except the Ides themselves; that the Deed was executed with a manly Courage, but supported by childish counsels; that the Tyranny survived the Tyrant; as the Conspirators, satisfied with Fame and Revenge, had neglected every Measure that might have restored public Liberty. Whilst Brutus and Cassius contemplated their own Heroism with the most happy Complacency, Marc Antony who had preserved his Life, and the first Magistracy of the State by their injudicious clemency, seized the Papers and Treasure of the Dictator, inflamed the People and the Veterans, and drove them out of Rome and Italy, without any other Opposition than some grave Remonstrances which the Patriots vainly addressed to the Consul.1

Gibbon is of course speaking of the “historical” Brutus, but everything he says applies with at least equal force to Shakespeare's Brutus. Shakespeare has Brutus make all the mistakes Gibbon lists, and others. Moreover, just as Gibbon in answer to his own question says Brutus' virtue consisted in his disinterested intention,2 so Shakespeare reworks his source materials so that Brutus' concern for pure intentions becomes the decisive cause of the conspirators' major errors and defeat. Yet Shakespeare's Brutus, like his historical model, enjoys the highest esteem and respect for his virtue. Nearly everyone in the play loves or admires him:3

O, he sits high in all the people's hearts;
And that which would appear offence in us
His countenance, like richest alchemy,
Will change to virtue and to worthiness.


Cassius bows to his judgment out of love and respect for his “noble mind” (I.ii.308). Portia loves him dearly and looks up to him as the model Roman. Caius Ligarius considers him the “Soul of Rome” and pledges to do anything, even “things impossible,” if only Brutus leads him (II.i.321-325). Lucilius gladly risks life and honor for him, and Brutus' defeated soldiers finally measure their own worth by how devotedly they served him. Even his enemies honor him highly. Octavius pays his virtue last respects, and Antony's final words laud his disinterested motives:

This was the noblest Roman of them all.
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only,(4) in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix'd in him, that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, “This was a man!”


To most Shakespearean critics, too, Brutus seems the perfect idea of Roman virtue. Mungo MacCallum, perhaps the play's most respected and influential 20th Century critic, expresses a conclusion shared by many. While stressing that Shakespeare actually “heightens the folly” of Brutus' mistakes by altering Plutarch's account so as to point up his Stoic intentions, MacCallum nevertheless argues that the playwright “screens from view whatever in the career of Brutus might prejudice his claims to our affection and respect.” Indeed, while “to Plutarch Brutus is, so to speak, the model republican, the paragon of private and civic virtue,” to Shakespeare, MacCallum believes, he is even more. Plutarch reports that

Brutus in a contrary manner [to Cassius], for his virtue and valiantness, was well-beloved of the people and his own, esteemed of noble men, and hated of no man, not so much as of his enemies, because he was a marvelous lowly and gentle person, noble minded, and would never be in any rage, nor carried away with pleasure and covetousness, but had ever an upright mind with him, and would never yield to any wrong or injustice, the which was the chiefest cause of his fame, of his rising, and of the good will that every man bore him; for they were all persuaded that his intent was good.5

Shakespeare, “adopt[ing] and purif[ying]” this conception of Brutus, “carries much further [the] process of idealization that Plutarch had already begun.”6 In MacCallum's eyes, neither Rome's defeat, nor Brutus' heightened folly in contributing to that defeat, detracts from his stature as the paragon of civic as well as private virtue.7

Impressed by his Stoic principles, even the best critics have taken Brutus' republicanism for granted. Although recognizing something ambiguous about his virtue, Allan Bloom's interpretation of Caesar rests squarely on the traditional view that “virtue, to [Brutus], is incorporated in the life of a good citizen.”8

The motivation of both Brutus and Cassius are truly republican, with the difference that, according to the formula of the time, the one hated tyranny, and the other, tyrants. … Both positions reflect elements in the republican character; the one presents the principles, the other, the passions which must be combined for a republican regime to endure. … Both Brutus and Cassius are noble Romans, the sort of men who made republican Rome the glory of political history.9

Yet Brutus' patriotism is not so unproblematical. His Stoic ethics of intention, depending on an opposition between self-interest and duty, proves to contain an antirepublican disdain for the success of his own political cause and even for the welfare of his country. Far from representing the principles of republican Rome, Brutus' celebrated virtue is, on the contrary, at once a reflection of and a reaction to the rise of imperial Rome.10

The first three sections of this essay will concentrate on the meeting at Brutus' house shortly before Caesar's assassination, when the conspiracy's intended moral figurehead becomes its political brains, as Brutus makes three important decisions against Cassius' better judgment: 1) not to swear an oath of resolution, 2) not to include Cicero in the plot, and 3) not to kill Antony along with Caesar. The last two sections will then consider Brutus' notion of the general good and the specific connection between his virtue and the rise of imperial Rome.11


The conspirators arrive at Brutus' house with “their hats … pluck'd about their ears, / And half their faces buried in their cloaks” (II.i.73-74). Although the night is so unusually bright that he can read without a candle (44-45), Brutus immediately assumes the conspirators' concealment is a sign of shame. His strong aversion to stealth, which seems of a piece with his devotion to the common good, leads him to believe they are ashamed to show their faces even “by night, / When evils are most free” (78-79). He regards their concealment not as a reasonable precaution in the pursuit of an honorable cause, but as a tacit confession that their cause is unjust. Justice, he believes, is public in every respect, and thus he considers the cloaked conspirators merely a “faction” (77). Their partial appearance betokens a partisan purpose. This moral revulsion to their covert activity is emblematic of his political decisions.

Brutus asks the other conspirators to give him their “hands over all, one by one.” But when Cassius then proposes they “swear [their] resolution,” Brutus immediately objects.

No, not an oath. If not the face of men,
The sufferance of our souls, the time's abuse—
If these be motives weak, break off betimes,
And every man hence to his idle bed.
So let high-sighted tyranny range on,
Till each man drop by lottery. But if these,
As I am sure they do, bear fire enough
To kindle cowards and to steel with valour
The melting spirits of women, then, countrymen,
What need we any spur but our own cause
To prick us to redress? what other bond
Than secret Romans, that have spoke the word,
And will not palter? and what other oath
Than honesty to honesty engag'd,
That this shall be, or we will fall for it?
Swear priests and cowards, and men cautelous,
Old feeble carrions, and such suffering souls
That welcome wrongs; unto bad causes swear
Such creatures as men doubt; but do not stain
The even virtue of our enterprise,
Nor th' insuppressive mettle of our spirits,
To think that or our cause or our performance
Did need an oath; when every drop of blood,
That every Roman bears, and nobly bears,
Is guilty of a several bastardy,
If he do break the smallest particle
Of any promise that hath pass'd from him.


Brutus' spirited objection presents a manly challenge: those needing to swear their resolution lack even the strength of women. His first decision is thus often praised for expressing republican sentiments. For example, Norman Rabkin, calling him “the ardent republican, the ideal Roman,” argues that

Brutus is right. What good is an oath which merely ornaments an action conceived in honor and love of country? Moreover, he is right practically. Any member of the band so inclined could break the oath to his own advantage and warn Caesar, but none does so in the absence of an oath. Oaths then are meaningless.12

Rabkin may have a point, but it is not Brutus'. Brutus objects not because a sworn oath would be superfluous, but for the opposite reason. He objects because swearing would be meaningful. Because it compels obedience, swearing an oath would “stain” the conspirators' “motives” and give the assassination the wrong meaning. The conspirators must do nothing that would belie virtue as their only concern.

Brutus' veto rests on a crucial distinction between a sworn oath, i.e., one sworn to the gods, and an oath exchanged among the conspirators, which, witnessed by no one save the “secret Romans” themselves, consists entirely in the integrity of their word. He objects to the former in the name of the latter because he considers swearing a sign of “need” (cp. 123 and 137). Brutus believes that virtuous men practice virtue for its own sake and not for the sake of its extrinsic consequences. Such men therefore need nothing but their virtue to spur their action. Since their virtue is unconditional, they do their duty because it is right, not because it is compulsory. Swearing an oath, however, suggests just the opposite, that the actors' resolution depends on outside compulsion or supports. By calling upon the powerful gods to witness our oaths, swearing enforces our promises through fear of divine punishment for perjury. A sworn oath is thus a sign of moral weakness, for, rather than pledging the strength we have, it provides the strength we need. To suggest that the conspirators swear an oath is, then, to “think” that they “did need” one. It is to “stain” their “virtue” by doubting their “motives.”13


The second decision enlarges upon the rationale of the first.14 Cassius asks whether they should sound out Cicero, adding that he thinks he will stand very strong with them. Several others agree, including Metellus Cimber:

O, let us have him, for his silver hairs
Will purchase us a good opinion,
And buy men's voices to commend our deeds.
It shall be said his judgment rul'd our hands;
Our youths and wildness shall no whit appear,
But all be buried in his gravity.


But Brutus quickly vetoes the proposal:

O, name him not; let us not break with him;
For he will never follow any thing
That other men begin.


One important effect of this decision is to deprive the conspiracy of Cicero's vast rhetorical abilities. As Bloom remarks, it is hard to believe that the man universally acknowledged the greatest orator in Roman history would not have presented the reasons for the assassination at Caesar's funeral better than Brutus did.15 However, the issue of Cicero's rhetoric is subordinate to the issue of his “judgment.” Brutus rejects including Cicero because he objects to prudence on principle.

For Brutus, his rivalry with Cicero involves not only who will be the conspiracy's acknowledged leader, but also, and especially, what “shall be said” to have “rul'd [the assassins'] hands.” Brutus knows that both would add respectability to the plot, but each for opposite virtues: Brutus for the purity of his intentions, Cicero for the prudence of his judgment.16

According to Brutus' conception of virtue, since virtue is voluntary, an action possesses no moral significance except insofar as it is voluntary. Its moral element therefore lies wholly within its initial inception or inward prompting—what Brutus calls “the first motion” (64)—and not in its ultimate outcome or outward consequence. It rests in the actor's will or intention, not the action's results. The actor's motives are thus the sole standard for judging the justice of an action. Standing above its outcome, virtue consists in choosing the right end rather than in achieving it, in aiming straight rather than in hitting the target. Moreover, since virtue is a disposition or attitude of the mind, it does not require knowledge. Exclusive regard for intention makes judgment superfluous while making justice inherently good.17

Prudence, on the other hand, is essentially instrumental. While presupposing a moral purpose, it deals directly with means rather than with ends. As Metellus Cimber's unfortunate metaphor of commerce signifies, it is always exercised for the sake of an end outside its own activity and not simply for its own sake.18 Cassius is correct when he reminds Brutus:

Of your philosophy you make no use,
If you give place to accidental evils.


But whereas Stoic wisdom patiently endures such evils,19 prudence is concerned with carefully avoiding them. To follow its counsels is therefore tantamount to conceding that virtue is not the only good or perhaps even the highest good and that happiness is indeed affected by things independent of one's will. It amounts to acknowledging that virtue is neither selfless nor self-sufficient, that its practice includes a consideration of extrinsic consequences and depends on the support of external goods.

Brutus rejects Cicero, then, for essentially the same reason he rejected swearing an oath. To be ruled by Cicero's “judgment” is to “make no use” of his own “philosophy.”20 The second decision goes beyond the first, however, in pointing up how concerned Brutus is with what others will say or think about his motives. An honorable reputation is as important to him as to any other Roman. But whereas a more traditional Roman would seek honor for his beneficial actions, Brutus seeks fame and glory for his honorable motives. Brutus, whose character in part combines personal ambition and selfless principles, fears that the reputation “the sagacious Tully” would lend the conspiracy would compromise the one he seeks for himself.21 The third decision will show how far he is prepared to go to avoid the compromising appearance of prudence.


Decius next raises the question of whether only Caesar should be killed, and Cassius, thinking to events beyond the assassination, urges that Antony should also fall lest in sparing him the conspirators in effect save Caesar. But Brutus objects. His objection, however, has almost nothing to do with Antony. It is concerned instead with how the conspirators' motives for killing Caesar will appear. “Our course will seem too bloody, Caius Cassius,” he explains,

To cut the head off and then hack the limbs,
Like wrath in death and envy afterwards;
For Antony is but a limb of Caesar.
Let's be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius.
We all stand up against the spirit of Caesar,
And in the spirit of men there is no blood.
O, that we then could come by Caesar's spirit,
And not dismember Caesar! But, alas,
Caesar must bleed for it. And, gentle friends,
Let's kill him boldly, but not wrathfully;
Let's carve him as a dish fit for the gods,
Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds.
And let our hearts, as subtle masters do,
Stir up their servants to an act of rage,
And after seem to chide 'em. This shall make
Our purpose necessary, and not envious;
Which so appearing to the common eyes,
We shall be call'd purgers, not murderers.
And for Mark Antony, think not of him;
For he can do no more than Caesar's arm
When Caesar's head is off.


Brutus' opposition springs from a paramount concern for the conspirators' reputation, not their eventual success. Killing Antony, he fears, would cause them to be “call'd” the wrong thing because the additional violence would give the wrong impression of their “purpose” for killing Caesar.

Critics often point out that Brutus, unable to permit himself full consciousness of what he is doing, tries to transform Caesar's assassination into something it is not. He tries to purify the deed of any taint of butchery by raising it to the level of pious sacrifice.22 He attempts this, however, not to cloak the deed with false appearances, but so the truth can be seen. The assassination must seem to be exactly what it is. Insisting on moral transparency, he demands that the assassination be performed in such a way as will show that the killers' “purpose” was “necessary, and not envious.” Their actions must assure “the common eyes” that their intention was free from any interested or passionate motive.

Imitating the indirect ways of “subtle masters,” the conspirators must show that their hearts were not in their action, that Caesar's death was nothing but a reluctant concession to justice. They must therefore not only act dispassionately and limit the violence by sparing Antony; they must also seem reluctant to kill Caesar, for reluctance, even more than dispassion, attests to disinterestedness. Reluctance to do their duty will show that their action was prompted by nothing but their duty—a paradox that helps explain why Brutus, although very careful to conceal his internal torments after deciding to kill Caesar, is willing, even eager, to let others see how painful it was for him to choose public duty over personal friendship.

But Brutus knows that protests of reluctance, while important, are not enough. “Though now we must appear bloody and cruel,” he explains to Antony after Caesar's death,

As by our hands and this our present act
You see we do, yet see you but our hands
And this the bleeding business they have done.
Our hearts you see not; they are pitiful;
And pity to the general wrong of Rome—
As fire drives out fire, so pity pity—
Hath done this deed on Caesar.


Because men tend to judge intentions by results, it is most important to Brutus that Caesar's death promise the assassins no personal gain. Others, including Caesar's partisans, may benefit, but not the assassins (III.ii.42-48). Their action, in fact, must entail a deep and conspicuous personal loss. The sacrifice of his “best lover” shows that Brutus acted “for the good of Rome” (III.ii.46). “Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.” (III.ii.22-23) What men give up, not what they gain, shows their disinterestedness. Accordingly, when Cassius says he still fears Antony “For the ingrafted love he bears to Caesar,” Brutus replies,

Alas, good Cassius, do not think of him:
If he love Caesar, all that he can do
Is to himself: take thought, and die for Caesar.


Men's loves are measured by their losses. The purity of a man's intentions is best shown by the sacrifice of what he holds most dear. As the purity of an act is best revealed by its imprudence, the ethics of intention, disdaining prudence, ultimately courts political defeat.23


Brutus' conception of the general good lacks a public or republican spirit. Before the conspirators arrive at his house, Brutus, having deliberated alone all night, reviews the considerations that led him to conclude Caesar must be killed. His speech begins,

It must be by his death: and for my part,
I know no personal cause to spurn at him,
But for the general.


Brutus affirms (as any republican might) that he will act for the sake of the general good. But what he means by “the general” is unrelated to republicanism.24 His Stoic soliloquy is devoid of considerations of republican freedom, honor, and tradition. In it, he never equates monarchy and tyranny; he shows no shame at living in awe of an equal; and while ignoring the sacred oath his ancestor made the Romans swear never to tolerate another king in Rome, he expresses readiness to accept Rome's return to monarchy providing only that reason continue to rule the king monarchically. Perhaps most telling, he never even mentions Rome.

What Brutus means by “the general good” is indicated by the way in which he begins the speech. Focusing on his own “part,” he denies any “personal cause” against Caesar. He sees dedication to the general good in terms of the motives for, not the results of, his actions. Brutus thus confuses impartiality with public-spiritedness. His failure to recognize a middle ground between base self-interest and noble self-sacrifice leads him to believe that sacrificing his own private satisfaction is the same as serving the public good. Brutus is thus dedicated to the general good chiefly in the negative sense of being willing to accept self-sacrifice, but not in the positive sense of actually benefiting his country. As is true of Stoicism in general, his virtue is related principally to enduring evils, not to bestowing goods.

To be sure, Brutus also wishes to live up to his illustrious name and emulate his revered ancestor, Junius Brutus, the founder of Rome's liberties. This is the side of him that Cassius appeals to when trying to arouse his republicanism to overcome his Stoic patience:

O, you and I have heard our fathers say,
There was a Brutus once that would have brook'd
Th' eternal devil to keep his state in Rome
As easily as a king.


And Cassius' efforts have an effect best seen in Brutus' patriotic response to his anonymous note:

Shall Rome stand under one man's awe? What, Rome?
My ancestors did from the streets of Rome
The Tarquin drive, when he was call'd a king.
“Speak, strike, redress!” Am I entreated
To speak, and strike? O Rome, I make thee promise,
If the redress will follow, thou receivest
Thy full petition at the hand of Brutus.


All the republican considerations missing from his Stoic deliberations are present here. Far from tolerating a king in Rome providing the king could remain virtuous, Brutus is now unwilling to endure Rome's standing under “one man's awe” under any conditions. The issue is no longer the overthrow of monarchy in Caesar, but of republicanism in Rome. Accordingly, Brutus does not present himself as Rome's disinterested arbiter, standing dispassionately over his country's fate. Instead, imagining himself petitioned by Rome, he pledges himself to an apostrophized Rome and, in further contrast to his Stoic soliloquy, emphasizes his own hand in the promised action. Whereas in the other speech he never mentions Rome, in this one (II.i.46-58) he mentions Rome as many times as in the rest of his lines combined.25 What matters to him now is Rome's redress, not his own motives. Concern for his country's well-being replaces concern for the purity of his own intentions.26 Cassius' republican instigations, however, have only a short-lived effect. The conspirators soon arrive, and Brutus' civic virtue gives way again to his Stoicism.27 Without constant prodding, his virtue lacks a genuine public dimension. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the end of his life.

Although he seems willing to sacrifice every personal good to the common good, what Brutus finally sacrifices is not so much himself as his country. Brutus says he knows “no personal cause” to act against Caesar. And at Caesar's funeral, just as he argues that the sacrifice of a dear friend shows that he killed Caesar for the good of Rome, so he also declares his willingness to kill himself for that cause: “as I slew my best lover for the good of Rome, I have the same dagger for myself, when it shall please my country to need my death.” (III.ii.26-28) But Brutus does not die for his country, or even thinking of his country. His thoughts center on himself as he prepares to die, and he judges his life by a standard wholly unconnected with “the good of Rome.”

My heart doth joy that yet in all my life
I found no man but he was true to me.
I shall have glory by this losing day
More than Octavius and Mark Antony
By this vile conquest shall attain unto.
So fare you well at once; for Brutus' tongue
Hath almost ended his life's history.
Night hangs upon mine eyes; my bones would rest,
That have but labour'd to attain this hour.


Brutus says he has labored his whole life only “to attain this hour.” But his hour of triumphant “glory” is also his country's “losing day.” What he has striven his entire life to attain stands apart from, or above, the downfall of his country. His personal moral victory shines through and eclipses the “vile conquest” of Rome herself. Similarly, just as his decisions as the conspiracy's leader are made not with a view to the political results of the conspirators' actions but with a view to the rectitude of their intentions, so too, running upon his sword, his dying thought is not of Rome or of the effects of his actions but of the goodness of his will:

          Caesar, now be still;
I kill'd not thee with half so good a will.


In the end, Brutus' ethics of intention, rather than extending his view to the whole community, narrows his vision to a purely personal concern. He ultimately values the purity of his soul above the welfare of his country.


Brutus heralds the rise of a postrepublican, apolitical or antipolitical moral virtue. His ethics of intention, reflecting the transition to or the emergence of imperial Rome, is essentially a sign of deep disenchantment. It marks a world in which political action and victory have lost their noble quality because political causes have lost their public character.

In the earlier days of the Republic, Romans strove for Rome's highest honors by competing with one another against her foreign enemies. In winning conquests for Rome, they also won honor and glory for themselves. Their private ambitions were at once served and ennobled by their public service. The public realm, linking together self-interest and duty, allowed men to rise above their merely private concerns while at the same time devoting themselves to something they could love as their own. By the time of Caesar, however, Rome's vast expansion had seriously diminished her public realm.

When could they say, till now, that talk'd of Rome,
That her wide walks encompass'd but one man?
Now is it Rome indeed, and room enough,
When there is in it but one only man.


Since actions derive their meaning chiefly from the causes they serve, Rome's “universal” empire (I.i.44) robs her political life of its ennobling spirit by reducing political causes to private causes. Only one man in Caesar—Young Cato—dies in battle for his country. And just as his appearance is largely unexpected, so, too, the standard others use for measuring his nobility is the action of a man who kills himself to show personal loyalty to a friend (V.iv.9-11).28 With this single exception, the Romans serve their various leaders rather than their country under their leaders and measure their own worth by what amounts to private “service to [their] master[s]” (see esp. V.v.53-67).

Brutus' ethics of intention is a reaction to this degradation of political life.29 It attempts to show or to find nobility in a world in which political victories become “vile” because no political action or cause is any longer truly public. As opportunities for public action and hence noble victories diminish, nobility does not so much disappear as it comes to be viewed in a radically new light. The dignity of intention rises as the dignity of action falls. Rather than seen chiefly in terms of action, nobility becomes internalized and, thought to dwell wholly within the actor himself, is understood in separation from or opposition to political action.30

Brutus' conception of honor reflects this new light. Honor was traditionally thought to be primarily an external reward for virtuous actions. Volumnia can speak of Coriolanus' “deed-achieving honour” (Cor. II.i.161), i.e., the honor he achieved for his deeds. No one would describe Brutus' honor in that way, least of all Brutus himself. Brutus begins his funeral oration by reminding the crowd of his honor:

Romans, countrymen, and lovers, hear me for my cause, and be silent, that you may hear. Believe me for mine honour, and have respect to mine honour, that you may believe.


“Honour” here signifies a virtuous disposition, not a noble reward. It is the standard for judging rather than the recognition for performing a certain action. Like “honesty” (which is even more closely associated with Brutus), it is a virtue or virtuous motive rather than virtue's noblest effect; and, again like “honesty,” it has the sense rather of abstaining from wrongdoing than of actually conferring benefits. Characteristically, Brutus believes that, if the people keep in mind that he is honorable, they will be convinced that Caesar's killing was just. Honorable motives by themselves make for an honorable deed. Since intentions are everything, the actions of an honorable man are just simply because he is honorable. They are and remain honorable whatever their consequences or success.31

Brutus' virtue also reflects Rome's emerging regime insofar as imperial Rome has no public life. It is especially fitting that Antony eulogizes Brutus for his disinterestedness, for even though Brutus considers him his moral opposite, Antony proves to epitomize the postrepublican notion that one can gain more by losing politically than by winning.32 Brutus' virtuous self-denial is of a piece with Antony's sensual self-indulgence. They are the twin representatives of the new Rome. The one is duty, the other desire, separated from public concerns; and in imperial Rome, as we find in Antony and Cleopatra, there is “no midway / ’Twixt these extremes at all.” (A & C III.iv.19-20) Characterized by a middle void, imperial Rome has nothing that can mediate between desire and duty.

Whereas citizen virtue, combining elements of “realism” and “idealism,” adds nobility to self-interest and friendship or fraternity to justice, and in so doing both ennobles and moderates these two extremes, Brutus' virtue, recognizing only the noble and not the necessary as just, lacks moderation and ultimately even more. In the end it lacks humanity. If man is somehow connected to both what is above and what is below him, his humanity depends on recognizing these two aspects of his nature and giving each its due. It may even be that man is man by virtue of that middle ground or part of the soul that mediates between these extremes, for neither extreme is distinctly human; one is bestial, the other divine. Brutus shows he recognizes this, at least in some sense, when he fears that Caesar would sink to the level of the lowest beast if, upon reaching the highest rung of ambition's ladder, he thought himself a god (II.i.10-34). To remember one's humanity means to remember one's place “in between.” But this is just what Brutus forgets in practicing a moral virtue that disdains political results.

There is something brutish about Brutus or his “idealism.” As Caesar's last words to him suggest (III.i.77), in killing Caesar he does indeed manage to live up to his name, but in a way he never meant. When Antony demands to be told why Caesar was dangerous, Brutus answers,

Or else were this a savage spectacle.
Our reasons are so full of good regard,
That were you, Antony, the son of Caesar,
You should be satisfied.


The assasssins' deed would be savage, he says, unless their reasons could overcome the natural love of one's own.33 Yet it is in trying to demonstrate just such disinterestedness that Brutus proves to be truly brutish.

Moments after the assassination, he exhorts the killers:

          Stoop, Romans, stoop,
And let us bathe our hands in Caesar's blood
Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords:
Then walk we forth, even to the market-place,
And waving our red weapons o'ver our heads,
Let's all cry, “Peace, freedom, and liberty!”


This speech and the bloody ritual it ushers in remind us of Brutus' vain hope to kill Caesar without spilling his blood so that the conspirators' impersonal motives will be apparent to everyone. The speech and ritual are the solemn fulfillment of his wish to convert the assassination into a religious sacrifice. But what exactly does Brutus sacrifice? Unwilling to swear an oath to the gods lest it stain the conspirators' motives, he is willing to make the assassination a human sacrifice to the gods in order to demonstrate those motives. His moral idealism requires the barbaric sacrifice of human blood. Brutus expresses manly contempt for “such suffering souls / That welcome wrongs.” Yet, unable to reconcile virtue and prudence, he ultimately pursues defeat. The defeat, however, is not his but Rome's. Unlike a soldier who sacrifices his own life for his country's victory, Brutus sacrifices the prospect of his country's victory for something entirely his own. Some Shakespearean critics, in important respects the spiritual heirs of postrepublican Rome, consider Brutus “the noblest Roman of them all” and admire him for prizing his ideals more than his country:

The life of Brutus, as the lives of such men must be, was a good life, in spite of its disastrous fortunes. He had found no man who was not true to him. And he had known Portia. The idealist was predestined to failure in the positive world. But for him true failure would have been disloyalty to his ideals. Of such failure he suffered none. Octavius and Mark Antony remained victors at Philippi. Yet the purest wreath of victory rests on the forehead of the defeated conspirator.34

But Shakespeare finds such idealism a degenerate form of nobility. Brutus' moral purity is his central moral as well as political defect. Rather than raise him to man's highest moral levels, his desire to place pure duty or justice over every ordinary human attachment finally degrades his humanity.

O judgment, thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason.


The idealistic attempt to rise above every attachment to one's own proves in the end not to be a divine willingness to sacrifice one's own well-being for the sake of a higher good, but an inhuman willingness to sacrifice the welfare and happiness of those one seems selflessly to serve. Deprecating political results, Brutus ultimately disdains humanity.


  1. “Digression on the Character of Brutus,” in The English Essays of Edward Gibbon, ed. Patricia B. Craddock (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), 96f.

  2. Ibid., 98.

  3. E. A. J. Honigmann, Shakespeare: Seven Tragedies (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), 42f.

  4. The Arden edn., like most recent edns., follows the Quarto (1691). The usually authoritative First Folio reads, “He, onely …” In a sense both are right. Properly speaking, “only” does double duty here, modifying what precedes and what follows it.

  5. Brutus, 29.2-3; Shakespeare's Plutarch, ed. W. W. Skeat (London: Macmillan and Co., 1875), 129.

  6. Shakespeare's Roman Plays and Their Background (London: Macmillan and Co., 1967), 249, 234, 233.

  7. Edward Dowden (Shakespeare: His Mind and Art [3rd edn.] [New York: Harper and Brothers, n.d.] 249), an important 19th Century critic, goes further:

    In Julius Caesar Shakespeare makes a complete imaginative study of the case of a man predestined to failure, who, nevertheless retains to the end the moral integrity which he prized as his highest possession, and who with each new error advances a fresh claim upon our admiration and our love.

    Consider also Nietzsche, Joyful Wisdom, 98.

  8. Shakespeare's Politics, 92. Bloom sees the problem of Brutus' virtue not in terms of its antirepublicanism but rather in terms of his hypocritical refusal to acknowledge the necessary conditions of his high-minded virtue; see ibid., 96ff.

  9. Ibid., 94.

  10. Paul A. Cantor (Shakespeare's Rome [Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1976]), while offering an excellent discussion of the connection between imperial Rome and the ethics of intention (145-154), follows Bloom in taking for granted that Brutus' virtue is essentially republican or public spirited (37f.). Cantor, in other words, fails to see the basic similarity between the apparent moral opposites, Brutus and Antony.

  11. Recent studies of Brutus' Stoicism include Marvin L. Vawter, “‘Division 'tween Our Souls’: Shakespeare's Stoic Brutus,” Shakespeare Studies, Vol. 7 (1974), 173-195, and Ruth M. Levitsky, “‘The Elements Were So Mix'd …’” PMLA, Vol. 88, No. 2 (March 1973), 240-245.

  12. Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (New York: Free Press, 1967), 108f.

  13. Ernest Schanzer to the contrary notwithstanding (The Problem Plays of Shakespeare [New York: Schocken Books, 1965] 46), Shakespeare alters Plutarch's account of Brutus to give central importance to his ethics of intention and its political effects. In Plutarch nothing is said about Brutus' role in the first decision (or even that a decision, strictly speaking, was taken); the issue is not the conspirators' ability to maintain their “resolution” but to keep their “secret”; furthermore, “having never taken oaths together, nor taken or given any caution or assurance, nor binding themselves one to another by any religious oaths,” they do not forswear a religious oath in the interests of another, purer sort of oath (Brutus, 12.6; Skeat, Shakespeare's Plutarch, 114). Note that the conspirators' meeting as a whole is Shakespeare's invention.

  14. Critics have failed to see the relation between the first decision and those that follow, or even that they are related. Either approving or simply ignoring the first decision while generally criticizing the others, they misjudge its significance because, like Rabkin, they look to the wrong sort of evidence. The question is not whether the conspirators need to swear an oath, but why Brutus insists they prove they do not. His insistence, not their resolution, is the real issue. By recognizing this, we can see that the three decisions are in fact a concatenation.

  15. Shakespeare's Politics, 98; also MacCallum, Shakespeare's Roman Plays, 249.

  16. Here I borrow from Bloom (Shakespeare's Politics, 98) where a similar formulation is used. Bloom, however, sees Brutus' imprudence not as a matter of principle but as the unwitting result of his rashness and hypocrisy; see ibid., 92-101.

  17. See esp. Cicero, De Finibus, III.

  18. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1112b12ff.

  19. I.ii.137-139; IV.iii.66-69, 189-191; V.i.101-108.

  20. Stoicism differs from Aristotle's teaching in regarding moral virtue as the highest good and consequently in making moral choice the final as well as the efficient cause of action. It differs from Kant's teaching, on the other hand, in considering the moral life to be the life according to nature and in holding that the virtuous man is always happy.

  21. In Plutarch (Brutus, 12.1-2; Cicero, 42.1) the conspirators as a group, not Brutus alone in opposition to their collective judgment, decide to exclude Cicero, and not because of his unwillingness to follow another's lead but because they fear his natural timidity, increased by age, would blunt the edge of their ardor at a crisis demanding speed.

  22. E.g., Bloom, Shakespeare's Politics, 96; Brents Stirling, Unity in Shakespearean Tragedy (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1956), 46.

  23. In Plutarch Brutus does not spare Antony for the sake of how the assassins' motives will appear. Moreover, his naivete has a different quality there from what it has in Shakespeare. Plutarch reports that all the conspirators except Brutus thought Antony should be killed because he was wicked and naturally favored monarchy, was held in high esteem by the soldiers, and, particularly, because in addition to a mind bent to great actions he also had the great authority of the consulship, being then consul with Caesar.

    But Brutus would not agree to it. First, for he said it was not honest; secondly, because he told them there was hope of change in him. For he did not mistrust but that Antonius, being a noble-minded and courageous man (when he should know that Caesar was dead) would willingly help his country to recover her liberty, having them as an example to him, to follow their courage and virtue.

    (Brutus, 18.2-3; Skeat, Shakespeare's Plutarch, 119f.)

    Whereas in Plutarch Brutus expects a virtuous example to have a virtuous effect on the “noble-minded” Antony, in Shakespeare he dismisses him as politically harmless because he considers him morally despicable (II.i.185-190). In Plutarch he expects too much; in Shakespeare, too little. In both accounts he believes that strength comes from virtue, but in Shakespeare he believes that vice renders a man negligible in every respect while in Plutarch he believes that even a man like Antony can be “noble-minded and courageous.” In sparing Antony, Shakespeare's Brutus seems at once more naive and less generous than his historical model.

    We should also note that Shakespeare makes Brutus' most notorious blunder—agreeing to arrange Caesar's funeral as Antony would have it—merely the culmination of his previous decisions. Brutus agrees to Antony's proposal so he can “show the reason of our Caesar's death” (III.i.237). By “show,” however, he means to demonstrate by action as well as to tell. He offers Antony the last word at the funeral (III.i.226-252) and then begs the crowd to stay and listen (III.ii.57-63), not so much because he thinks he will give unanswerable reasons for Caesar's death, but because he wants to demonstrate his disinterestedness by allowing Caesar's loyal partisan to speak. As least as important to him as what he will say is that both he and Antony will announce that Antony speaks by the assassins' permission (III.i.235-251; III.ii.56-63, 83-85). Antony does indeed speak “For Brutus' sake” (III.ii.58, 67). By allowing Antony to praise their victim's glories, the conspirators will show their honorable motives. See the text at n. 33 below.

    For an excellent discussion of how Shakespeare modifies Plutarch's account both to make Brutus' “responsibility” for the error “undivided” and to remove “all the explanatory circumstances” for the decision, see MacCallum, Shakespeare's Roman Plays, 249f. Note also that Shakespeare even takes from Plutarch Antony's cunning reason to bury Caesar honorably and gives it to Brutus (Algeron de Vivier, “Julius Caesar,” in Shakespearean Studies, ed. Matthews and Thorndike [New York, 1916; rpt. New York: Russell and Russell, 1962], 261).

  24. Saying he does not see “in what point of view [Shakespeare] meant Brutus' character to appear” in this soliloquy, Coleridge (Lectures and Notes on Shakespeare [London: George Bell and Sons, 1908], 313) remarks that “surely nothing can seem more discordant with our historical preconceptions of Brutus, or more lowering to the intellect of the Stoico-Platonic tyrannicide, than the tenets here attributed to him—to him, the stern republican.” Note that the soliloquy is Shakespeare's invention.

  25. Brutus mentions Rome twelve times altogether, six in these thirteen lines. This soliloquy is also the only speech in the play to begin and end with the speaker's name.

  26. In Lucrece, Junius Brutus is so contemptuous of the wish to show pure intentions that he criticizes not only Lucrece's soft husband, Collatine, for not revenging her rape, but Lucrece as well for killing herself to prove her “mind” was “pure” (1. 1704): “Why Collatine, is woe the cure for woe? / Do wounds help wounds, or grief help grievous deeds? / Is it revenge to give thyself a blow / For his foul act by whom thy fair wife bleeds? / Such childish humour from weak minds proceeds; / Thy wretched wife mistook the matter so, / To slay herself that should have slain her foe.” (11. 1821-1827) Republican Rome might be said to combine the qualities of Junius Brutus and Lucrece.

  27. Note that Brutus' three decisions are decreasingly republican. The first contains his only mention of tyranny (II.i.118).

  28. Young Cato dies declaring himself “A foe to tyrants, and my country's friend” (V.iv.5), but it is unclear whether he is honored for his action or for “being Cato's son” (V.iv.9-11).

  29. Consider Caius Ligarius, who regards Brutus as the “Soul of Rome” (II.i.321) and is the only character to look to him from the start to lead the conspiracy. Ligarius, a “mortified spirit” (II.i.324) who almost literally embodies the ethics of intention, suffers an unjust fate which shows what his limited actions could not show—that he is too noble to live at Caesar's continued sufferance. While accompanying Brutus to Caesar's house, he does not proceed to the Senate and so has no hand in the deed for which the mob punishes him; II.i.215-220, 310-334; II.ii.111-113; III.iii.35-38.

  30. For the difference between the pagan hero and the Christian hero or martyr (“witness”), see Augustine, The City of God, X.21. Among many allusions throughout Caesar to the coming of Christianity with its new sort of hero are the conversation immediately preceding Brutus' first decision in which “the high east” is said to stand directly beyond the Capitol (II.i.101-111); Decius' interpretation of Calphurnia's purported dream concerning Caesar's death, in which, as Samuel Johnson (1765) says, “There are two allusions: one to coats armorial … ; the other to martyrs. … The Romans, says Decius, all come to you, as to a saint, for reliques; as to a prince, for honours.” (quoted by Dorsch, Julius Caesar, 55f.); and the number of Caesar's wounds, which in Plutarch, Suetonius and Appian are twenty-three but in Shakespeare thirty-three (V.i.53). (For the symbolic significance of this number in Shakespeare, see Howard B. White, Copp'd Hills Toward Heaven: Shakespeare and the Classical Polity [The Hague: Nijhoff, 1970], 75.) For other allusions, see Roy W. Battenhouse, Shakespearean Tragedy (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1969), 92f.

  31. See Norman Council, When Honour's at the Stake (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 60-74, and note esp. his remarks on Casca's alchemical metaphor at I.iii.157-160 (63).

    The difference between the spirit of Brutus' virtue and republicanism is further indicated by the following Shakespearean revision. According to Plutarch, when Portia disclosed to Brutus that she had gashed herself in the thigh to prove herself worthy of his trust, “Brutus was amazed to hear what she said unto him, and lifting up his hands to heaven, he besought the goddess to give him the grace he might bring his enterprize to so good pass that he might be found a husband worthy of so noble a wife as Portia.” (Brutus, 13.6; Skeat, Shakespeare's Plutarch, 116) In Shakespeare, Brutus, hearing of her proof, also prays to the gods to “Render me worthy of this noble wife!” but is silent about the success of the republican cause (II.i.302f.).

  32. See Cantor, Shakespeare's Rome, 148ff.

  33. Hence Caesar's last words to Brutus in Suetonius, “And thou, my son?” (Divus Julius, 82) become “Et tu, Brute?” (III.i.77) in Shakespeare.

  34. Dowden, Shakespeare, 272.

Günter Walch (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6825

SOURCE: “The Historical Subject as Roman Actor and Agent of History: Interrogative Dramatic Structure in Julius Caesar,” in Shakespearean Illuminations: Essays in Honor of Marvin Rosenberg, edited by Jay L. Halio and Hugh Richmond, Associated University Presses, 1998, pp. 220-36.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1989, Walch comments on the volatility of historical and linguistic meaning in Julius Caesar, concentrating on the oppositional discursive structure of the drama.]

Our time is characterized by rapid social and political changes, growing concern about the future, and an increasing awareness of the individual's precarious situation. This has been made clear by the pivotal role of power relations in scholarship and the arts from such contemporary theoretical discourses as structuralism, post-structuralism, the New Historicism, some forms of psychoanalysis, and Marxism. The GDR's current lively interest in the anniversary of the French Revolution, for instance, has not been limited to a handful of specialized historians, but involves artists and musicians and, above all, the general public. History is traditionally a strong component of this country's intellectual and cultural life and seems now to be acquiring a new significance. Methodologically this calls for an open approach and for a richer understanding of history. Humankind will not survive the onslaught of the scourges of armament, hunger, and environmental destruction, so the argument goes, if a world different from the one we now live in is no longer imaginable. History along with the theater and the arts are thus important sources for the (necessary) social imagination. And Marxists should, for these reasons, turn to history for a study without illusions about its real contradictions, and try to comprehend it as a complex sequence of decision-taking situations rather than looking at it primarily as an affirmation of political ideology.1

The fortunes of the historical subject in the throes of fundamental historical change is a concern shared by scholars, readers, directors, actors, and theater audiences. But Julius Caesar, even though it has been referred to as a play about revolution, has yet to play a major role in any recent national or international discussion of the stage or in literary criticism. This point is underlined by reference to the choice of plays by Shakespeare critics interested in power relations, social contradictions, and resulting political conflicts. At the center of the canon that has developed in recent years are Hamlet, Coriolanus, Henry IV, Measure for Measure, and The Tempest. Other plays include Henry V, King Lear, and Troilus and Cressida as well as a few of the comedies. The latter are especially evident within various trends in feminist Shakespeare criticism. Some other plays are occasionally referred to or at least mentioned, but very rarely Julius Caesar.2

One reason for this is that Julius Caesar is Shakespeare's apparently most pronouncedly neoclassical play. Ever since the later seventeenth century the theatrical and critical reception of Julius Caesar has tended toward the neoclassical representation of rounded characters and, above all, of a closed narration of events that are largely of a public nature. This does not necessarily mean that internal contradictions in the characters have been consistently ignored. But there has been a marked tendency to consider these prerequisite for lifelike characters. People harbor internal contradictions. So do characters. Characters are like people. Depending on the critics' or directors' political, philosophical, and aesthetic views, either Brutus or Caesar has been extolled as the tragic protagonist, and embarrassing passages have been faded out. As a result, the play's characters have seemed highly stable. As seemingly true-to-life personages they have developed a degree of persuasive pressure that has led to an urge to rid them of traits marring their seemingly “natural” character.

Thus Granville-Barker, to give just one example, like Pope and others before him, attributed Brutus' important speech accompanying the blood ritual, “Stoop, Romans, stoop, / And let us bathe our hands in Caesar's blood, / Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords” (3.1.105-9) to Cassius as unfitting to Brutus' noble character.3 In the same spirit, all T. S. Dorsch can find to say about this particular theatrical scene is that it “merely disgusts us.” Also, Brutus' association of Caesar with pillage in his quarrel with Cassius—Caesar, he says, was slain “but for supporting robbers” (4.3.23)—is, to Dorsch in the introduction to his influential Arden edition (1975), simply an “inexplicable statement,” a “careless” mistake on the part of Shakespeare, who happened to be following Plutarch very closely but was deplorably lacking in consistency at this point (xxxvi).

The impression of exceptionally stable meaning consolidated by such moves seems to have been aided by the remarkable stability of the printed text itself. Unlike, notoriously, King Lear or (considering the texts chronologically closest to Julius Caesar) Hamlet and even Henry V, Julius Caesar raises few exciting textual problems. There is, of course, no Quarto, let alone several. The only authoritative text is in the First Folio. This does contain what seem to be a few absurdities that most probably result from doubling at least one actor's part (Cassius/Ligarius) and from a few contradictory stage directions. Or there is the famous illogicality (if it is an illogicality) of the two passages telling us about Portia's death (4.3.143-61; 4.3.180-94), probably the result of different stages of work with the text. Such traces of theatrical textual activity as these have been, it appears, too faint to inspire fresh readings of a play exceptionally well printed from a well ordered and legible copy text.4 Or again, if we look at Coriolanus for a comparison with a Roman play favored by modern critics and writers interested in problems of power and authority, we find that to Bertolt Brecht, for example, this play appeared significant because of the fundamental class conflict at its base. He was interested in staging, in a new and topical way, the political and economic strategies of the patricians defending the profits accruing from their usury, and the resistance by the plebeians in which we can surmise echoes of the first stirrings in 1607 of the Levellers and Diggers.5 Leaping forward to the most recent critical work, Coriolanus is analyzed in terms of a political legitimation crisis,6 or of the failure of entrenched authority,7 or, as part of an examination of the dialogic-mimetic speech act structure of Shakespeare's oeuvre; attention is also drawn to Coriolanus' open form of representation in which the dramatist, after previous experiments in breaking up firmly established significations of authority in his textual work, from the turn of the century makes that approach a compositional principle.8

In all of these instances, the angry plebeians, and the political, linguistic, and aesthetic issues that have been raised in connection with them, then as now, are at the center of interest. But compared with the active plebeians in Coriolanus, those in Julius Caesar, almost prototypically dirigible objects of political manipulation, and, no doubt largely for that reason, generally have not been attractive to recent critics endeavoring to understand more carefully the complex causes and consequences of historical and textual contradictions in the terms just indicated. Yet, as I propose to demonstrate, Julius Caesar, written in 1599, is as much part of Shakespeare's turn of the century theatrical exploration of power as Henry V and Hamlet, its closest chronological neighbors to which the same historical, political, and aesthetic conditions of theatrical signification apply. In these plays particularly, as on the Shakespearean stage as an emerging mode generally, authority is both a represented object of, and a representing agency in, theatrical production. An historically new type of theater, a commercially funded, secular, professional, shareholding enterprise represents the established authorizing types of political, ecclesiastical, and juridical discourse dominant in Elizabethan England within its texts and productions. But at the same time, generating and sustained by, and helping to generate, a modern type of authority, itself unrepresented, and now openly embracing “as authoritative the provision of pleasure, the efficacy of communication, the distribution of information and news-value, and the functions of social release and collective memory,”9 this theater in its synthesis of textual and theatrical signification breaks with the fixed correlation of signs of officially sanctioned ideological meanings. It thus engenders “a new discursive paradigm” contributing to “the project of modernity … for which new modes of negotiating and appropriating authority were indispensible and, indeed, constitutive.”10 Considering the prominence of the English Renaissance theater as a medium of communication, its contribution to that project, which is of undiminished relevance to this time, is of considerable significance.

All of this is emerging more clearly in our own time. As we begin to penetrate post-Enlightenment appropriations and adjustments of Shakespearean drama and its wealth of theatrical means and devices that undermine the authorized representation of power, we can also appreciate that drama's affinity to indeterminate interrogative textual structures. This certainly applies to Henry V and Hamlet that are chronologically closest to Julius Caesar, written and performed at a time of sharpening crisis during the last years of the aging Queen's reign. In Henry V Shakespeare uses the natural analogy of the honeybee along with its rich Renaissance intertextuality. It is one of several time-honored contemporary topoi drawing on natural phenomena for their ideologically stabilizing effect. This makes it particularly hard to de-essentialize Canterbury's imperative discourse of power. Furthermore, Shakespeare's handling of the Chorus character makes evident the difference between what is said and what is shown on the stage, between the officially sanctioned patriotic ideology and the actual political situation. In Hamlet, first performed between 1599 and 1601 but probably composed after Julius Caesar, Shakespeare employs a variety of approaches and devices contributing to the degree of intensity to which the problem of the historical individual caught between the necessary and the possible, obedience and desire, is dramatically explored. The popular characters of the philosophical gravediggers illustrate this, as does at the level of official culture, neoclassical poetic theory itself, that the Prince, while prescribing it in his advice to the actors, contradicts in his own actions.11

My point of departure for the subsequent reading of Julius Caesar is that, through this text, Shakespeare unfolds on the public stage a political alternative to imperial tyranny. This feudal term, along with tyrant(s) (and accompanied by the relevant register generally), appears seven times in key positions and is used very much through Marcus Antonius' apologetic language to associate absolutist ancient regime thinking and practice on- and off-stage. However, although the play possibly sympathizes with republicanism, it does not seem able or willing to take sides in the struggle of constitutional systems as early as 1599. Shakespeare keeps his distance from both systems and their ideologies. Yet to allow the comparison to unfold dramatically meant, and still means, moving it into the sphere of what is becoming thinkable, this being always specified by meaning in circulation; and, possibly, to suggest by implication a third alternative: instead of the rule by one (Caesar) or a privileged elite (Brutus' republicanism), the determination of public affairs by the many or even by all. In this way the play excels in raising questions rather than in being able to answer them. Catherine Belsey asks two such questions: “Perhaps the play condemns usurpation rather than tyranny? Or tyranny but not absolutism?”12 Since the play, sustained by the self-authorization of the new theater for which it was written, foregrounds this process of questioning, it is here discussed in terms of an interrogative text.13 As an interrogative text, Julius Caesar urges the reader or auditor to venture answers to questions that are raised or, more typically, suggested. Furthermore, it operates as an interrogative text by drawing attention to its own textuality, for instance, the appropriation of classical material, and by inviting questions concerning itself, that can undermine dramatic illusion where it emerges. At crucial points the audience is distanced from stage events. And it is an interrogative text since, on the strength of its distancing interrogative structure, it does not permit any single and privileged discourse to contain and situate the others.14 Shakespeare develops a specific interrogative structure in which several discourses work together and against each other. This undermines the control of any of them by a single discourse—primarily the imperative discourse of established authority. The dramatist works toward an altogether new discourse the object of which involves a problem of representation, the problem of representing something as yet undeveloped, something historically new just then emerging, and something without precedent.

Why does Shakespeare turn from writing English history plays to writing Roman tragedy? What explains this radical generic break? The classical material and mode were of course anything but new to him. But Julius Caesar was a far cry from Titus Andronicus (1589-90) and, in a different genre, from The Rape of Lucrece (1594). Above all, for the first time Shakespeare turned to Plutarch, a highly political writer, in his search for suitable material. If we think of the dramatist's writing process in terms of historical activity and thus as an integral part of history itself (rather than as an act of inspiration passively outside history and at best merely reflecting some of its aspects) to ask, for example, what might possibly explain that generic change is not only legitimate but becomes indeed indispensable. A connection may be presumed with Julius Caesar as one of the first plays, if not the very first, opening the Globe. The superior new building and its favorable position on the Bankside may also have attracted more refined people with more elevated classical tastes.15 It seems possible that the Lord Chamberlain's Men were worried by the bishop's order of 1599 which, although it did not ban English history from the stage, subjected it to prior licensing by the Privy Council. However, other companies went on performing history plays for at least another half dozen years. If abandoning national history as a subject for its stage by Shakespeare's company signals extreme caution and the wish to avoid clashes with the censor, this stands in curious contrast to their willingness to perform Richard II on the eve of the Essex Rebellion. That example, including Elizabeth's much quoted remark—“I am Richard II, know ye not that”—tells us how sensitively the authorities did, and could be expected to, react to any suspected form of subversive activity. (The stumbling block in this case, however, may not have been Shakespeare's play at all but—as Barroll (1988) has tried to show—John Hayward's The first part of the life and raigne of King Henrie the III of 1599.)16 Whatever the external reasons may have been, it now appears fairly certain that the history play, which in the late sixteenth century had given to the theater such an excellent opportunity to communicate Tudor historiography with its audience about the need for national unity both at home and abroad, was around the turn of the century becoming more and more of a liability since, as Shakespeare had consistently done, political issues were raised through the agency of the genre.

The ideological boundaries of plays representing English history, a discourse always already interpreted by establishment historiography, were now being more and more jealously guarded. Compared with the growing constraints imposed by writing and staging English histories, the new historical, philosophical, linguistic, gestic, and visual material provided by the classical discourse offered a number of creative advantages. Above all, the exploration of contemporary reality17 could be continued with stage characters less encumbered by domestic accretions, with great figures that could display what appeared to be exemplary civic virtues in a spirit of free humanity, and whose pathos communicated a concentrated historical experience and bestowed on stage events a dimension of universal history. In political terms highly topical at that point in English history and for the “project of modernity” generally, Shakespeare, in Harry Levin's words, “[i]n transferring his venue from the English monarchy to the Roman republic … shifted his emphasis from kingship to citizenship, and from the duties of the subject to the rights of the citizen.”18 In turning to Rome and Romanitas, Shakespeare was, however, dealing with a thoroughly ambiguous discourse. Its potential for self-representation had long since been appropriated by Renaissance monarchies, the Tudors among them. Public displays of the representatives of authority and their insignia became an indispensable method of wielding power. Classical mythology was central to public spectacles, court celebrations, and royal progresses. King James's style of government and representation was conceived wholly in terms of Romanitas, his court theater as well as his (and Elizabeth's) understanding of the royal personage as an actor always on public display, setting his own standard right up to the construction of a royal pedigree, invariably including Hercules as the ancestor of all European monarchs.

The ambivalence of the Roman discourse allows associations with both republican civic virtues and free humanity on the one hand, and with absolute power on the other; its differences and contradictory functions constitute the tragedy and particularly the dramatically decisive scene, 3.2, in which first Brutus, then Antony carry on their rhetorical struggle for power. Antony presents Caesar, who had kept “the general coffers” (91) filled, as the people's benefactor. He has left the citizens seventy-five drachmas each and his “private arbours, and new-planted orchards, / … To walk about and recreate yourselves” (250, 252-53). Above all, Antony identifies Caesar with Rome. The common weal is identical with Caesar's welfare, and now with that of his party. Therefore the conspirators' crime was not merely directed against Caesar, but against Rome. Their reasons can only have been personal:

What private griefs they have, alas, I know not,
That made them do it.


Since realm and ruler are identical, opposition against the regime is opposition against the realm itself. Consequently the conspirators are “traitors” (199, 203, 207, 257; Antony first skillfully elicits the word from the Fourth Plebeian at 155). This is the language and the strategy of absolute power19 as we also find them in Shakespeare's other dramatic genres, from the early histories to the late romances. The native discourse of absolute power merges easily with the Roman discourse. On the other hand, Brutus' discourse, because of his republicanism, is more narrowly associated with Romanitas. Among Brutus' civic virtues his honor is most prominent, clearly no longer a discredited feudal concept of honor but that of a free and proud citizen. This is a significant conceptual change pointing toward, perhaps, the ultimate causes for Shakespeare's decision respecting genre. Brutus' honor safeguards his credibility, certainly to the conspirators and to his own thinking. In accordance with dramatic requirements his speech relies on logical, although finally tautological, arguments. Its conspicuous lack of manipulative intent is indicated by its prose form, and it foregoes all concrete detail. There is nothing in this speech to answer the will, the drachmas, or the gardens. He, too, speaks on behalf of Rome. As republican Rome it is a Rome of liberty that has to ward off the absolutism of the individual tyrant.

But this speech, so thoroughly informed by an emancipatory program shockingly opposed to any kind of absolute power, contains a significantly empty space. It originates in Brutus' silence about the particularity of the claim to power by these republican patricians, themselves a small privileged elite. Historically, democratic rule can hardly become a forthright subject of drama in 1599. Yet the possibility that it is suggested even at that point by the play of differences within the dialogues cannot altogether be excluded. The actual republican particularity, which in Shakespeare's play does not contradict the facts from ancient history, is veiled in this text by the subjective honesty of Brutus' ideas as submitted in his speech and then by the conspirators' assertive slogans proclaiming their own understanding of their cause:

Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!

(Cinna, 3.1.78)

Liberty, freedom, and enfranchisement!

(Cassius, 81)

Peace, freedom, and liberty!

(Brutus, 110)

Accompanying the blood ritual immediately after the killing, these slogans are pragmatically adequate. But neither here nor anywhere else in the play, in a situation of less excitement, are they filled with any kind of programmatic content. What the liberty threatened by Caesar was like politically, what republican liberty is meant to be like, even the assessment of Caesar as a tyrant, and of absolutist rule itself, all remains entirely unresolved and is (as I shall demonstrate) deliberately opened up for questioning.

The language of Romanitas, particularly close, but by no means limited, to Brutus, seems to favor a tendency toward rhetorical abstractness. At the same time Shakespeare uses this very discourse to break up a closed dramatic representation of traditional material. In other words, he does this to achieve something similar to that achieved by the use of, say, an anachronistic chorus or natural analogies in Henry V. In Julius Caesar, as at roughly the same time in Hamlet, he avails himself of the metaphors of his profession, the theater, to literally dramatize, and thus direct attention to at a most prominent point in the play the sense-generating function of the discourse of Romanitas. The crucial moment comes in the second scene of act 2 when the great conspirators' conference has been concluded and the necessary arrangements made. Speaking last, Brutus dismisses the others by admonishing them to dissemble—a piece of advice entirely out of character by conventional standards and justifiable only by the noble aim they aspire to:

Good Gentlemen, look fresh and merrily.
Let not our looks put on our purposes,
But bear it as our Roman actors do,
With untir'd spirits and formal constancy.
And so good morrow to you every one.
                    [Exeunt. Manet Brutus.]


This is much more than a piece of indirect characterization. Shakespeare, to use Homann's term in making “the theater turn to itself”20 as he so often does, is quite specific. Brutus refers to Roman actors as conceived by an Elizabethan, with stylistic characteristics of the histrionic representation of Romanitas. Their style of performance is determined by a “formal constancy” that elevates it beyond all common human weakness, by a rigidly formal and ceremonial regularity, unity, and immutability. Romanitas has endowed these actors with the timeless constancy and grand harmonious stance of a classical statue.

There is a fascinating aspect to these surreally statuesque Roman actors, whom the dramatist here evokes on the stage for his agents of history, as the standard of demeanor adequate to a most crucial situation. Brutus refers to them to conceal from himself that empty space in his long speech. To quote Marx on the needs of the French revolutionaries, they have been summoned by the “world-historical necromancy … in order to conceal from themselves the bourgeois limitations of the content of their struggles and to maintain their passion on the high plane of great historical tragedy.”21 The ghosts from the days of Rome already haunted the Renaissance stage and because of the ambivalence of classical discourse, served aristocratic as well as bourgeois interests.

Although the historical situations, the earlier English prerevolutionary and the later French revolutionary situation, are quite different from each other, the representational coincidence is not accidental as long as we do not limit our concept of revolution just to the change of political hegemony, but conceive of it in the far more comprehensive terms of a change in historical formation.22 As a site where, in one dimension, illusions are produced, the public stage is a most adequate place for classical actors in their Roman robes and once—again in Marx's words about the agents of history—“their dramatic effects.”23 In the play, Cassius, standing by Caesar's dead body, reminds his fellow conspirators and the audience of the theatrical nature of the “lofty scene” that has just taken place by his famous anticipation of future revivals as theater shows:

Cassius. Stoop then, and wash. How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over.
In states unborn, and accents yet unknown!
Brutus. How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport,
That now on Pompey's basis lies along,
No worthier than the dust.
Cassius. So oft as that shall be,
So often shall the knot of us be call'd
The men that gave their country liberty.


The dramatic ironies involved in the dramatic characters' assessments of themselves have been commented on so often that there is no need for repetition. What concerns us here is that at this moment they have reached the climax of their historical action. As late as at 2.1.101-11 the conspirators were shown to be unable to agree even on the direction in which the Sun rises, a point on which an argument would seem to hold little promise in any situation. Now, after having been admonished to emulate the perfect actors of antiquity, the “lofty scene” just then performed can be celebrated as exalted and perfectly achieved. The historical act of the liberators can now be reviewed like a premiere: a huge success. Cassius and Brutus quite unambiguously associate the historical act represented with its representational form as a theatrical performance during the blood ritual. Brutus had earlier defined the murder itself as a sacral scenic event: “Let's be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius” (2.1.166). What has thus been achieved is that, at the climax of their historical act, for a brief passing moment, “the most boldest and best hearts of Rome” (3.1.121) are shown, during the ritualized sacrifice and now during the blood ritual, to live up to the high demands made by the classical discourse. Such agreement of classical norm and dignified “lofty” action will only be reached again by Cassius, Titinius, and Brutus after Philippi by their classically heroic suicides. But even then a high price has to be paid. It consists in the relinquishment by Cassius of his Epicurean philosophy (5.1.77-79), and by Brutus of his Stoic philosophy (101-8).

Yet even in act 3 Shakespeare's use of the classical discourse as theatrical language at the moment of that climax contains the implication of the element of illusion that is inherent in the events shown. At that moment, at the height of the task, the characters are simultaneously agents of world history and “Roman actors.” But from now on they will be measured against the standard raised by Romanitas. The discourse of Romanitas has helped to bring together in one great moment both history and human endeavor as authorized by universal history, but has not eliminated their difference. On the contrary, after the production and performance of “our lofty scene” by these Roman actors, that very difference breaks open and begins to take command of the action. And this is precisely the function of the theatrically marshaled discourse of Romanitas in Julius Caesar: to make visible the difference between expectations and their fulfillment, between what is said and what is done, between theory and practice, between the normative “formal constancy” of the “Roman actor” and the actual activity of historical subjects under the conditions and constraints of social crisis. Romanitas informs and provides orientation for this dramatic text. It enables strategy to be organized as a process.

In conclusion, let me indicate at least some of the problems, and consequences for Julius Caesar as a whole, of Shakespeare's dramatic use of the discourse of Romanitas. Setting up, for emulation on the stage of the theater and on the stage of history, the ideal type of the “Roman actor” in acts 2 and 3 entails the consequences of raising, through both declaration and the stage events, a classicist expectation among the audience. But his expectation is fulfilled only incompletely. The fact that the reason is a critical distance from Roman values on the part of Shakespeare, increasing from Titus Andronicus to Julius Caesar, is substantiated by Robert Miola's analysis in Shakespeare's Rome (1983) of Shakespeare's representation of misogyny from which female characters suffer in this and other works. All Romans, women as well as men, are expected to behave heroically according to “our fathers' minds,” as Cassius insists, and definitely not according to “our mothers' spirits” (1.3.82-83). Miola comments: “Any civilization founded on principles such as these, Shakespeare suggests, is strange, unnatural, inhuman, and doomed” (96-97). From a different point of view, Shakespeare's critical distance from Romanitas is thus corroborated. It allowed Shakespeare to use the discourse of Romanitas not only as a representing discourse, which was after all dominant in Renaissance culture, but also as a discourse critically represented for dramatically functional purposes.

But that makes the play much less stable than has commonly been assumed. Instability is indeed, as such, one of its central motifs, a fact that has, however, more often than not been interpreted in terms of formal dramatic irony rather than as a result of different discourses working against each other. One further consequence of that function of discourses is that the aesthetic determination of the “Roman actors” is inscribed in the text of Caesar himself, of the man nourishing the plain belief, “for always I am Caesar” (1.2.209):

But I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix'd and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament. …
                    I do know but one
That unassailable holds on his rank
Unshak'd of motion; and that I am he,
Let me a little show it, even in this,
That I was constant Cimber should be banish'd,
And constant do remain to keep him so.

(3.1.60-62, 68-73)

The “constancy” Caesar claims for himself at this point appears eight times in the play, as “constancy” / “constant(ly).” He is made to lay claim to the “constancy” of the “Roman actors” so highly commended by Brutus as their essential formal characteristic in his last words, a few lines before his fall. The many apparent disparities or breaks in the other characters can also be interpreted in the light of this sort of textual activity. If, for instance, the noble Brutus keeps rejecting, with a kind of stubborn constancy, the politically and strategically reasonable alternative suggestions submitted by Cassius, a character with a low measure of “formal constancy,” the audience's attention is very deliberately directed toward the contradictions of the political process unfolded by the activity of historical subjects. Furthermore, from a different perspective, the famous line, “Caesar did never wrong, but with just cause,” ridiculed by Ben Jonson and obviously changed in the First Folio (3.1.47-48), might be considered as a signal of textual activity rather than dismissed as sheer nonsense. To the classicist ear this line must needs be devoid of all ethical consistency and, as an allegation mentioned nowhere else in the play, seems to infer logical instability of the worst order, which can only sound aesthetically ludicrous. But as a form of utterance originating in a representational crisis of absolutist power, it generates political sense. It disrupts the tendency toward closure instinctively seized upon and made essential by critics who can only explain the line by seeing it as a leftover from Plutarch and something Shakespeare neglected to tidy up. That political sense is generated by making the crisis of legitimation appear in a paradox. After all, attempts to justify an exercise of power that has become doubtful with arguments meant to sound just, reasonable, and natural are common practice among representatives of established authority. What makes the example of Caesar never doing wrong “but with just cause” stand out is its paradoxical directness. We should be wary of dismissing it too lightly; all the evidence, chiefly the attacks on it by Ben Jonson, himself a member of that company, repeated over many years, indicates that the actors went on using the original version of that line apparently unperturbed.

There is yet another indication that Julius Caesar is less stable than has been assumed. Caroline Spurgeon demonstrated many years ago that the imagery in Julius Caesar is peculiar in that it does not come from any one single dominant area, even though images of civil strife are prominent in the first half and animal imagery has contributed with some consistency to building the main characters.24 Such relatively open audience response guidance, which can encourage auditors to increase their efforts of making sense of what they hear and see, has been corroborated by E. A. J. Honigmann's analysis generally of “a steady move away from the notion that character is fixed, defined, an object, a formula, an ascertainable humour, a ruling passion” so that the result is a strategy of “mixed” audience response guidance reaching a climax in Julius Caesar.25 For Honigmann, as for Dr. Johnson before him, who was uncomfortable with the play's relatively cool atmosphere, Shakespeare's mixture of the tactical means guiding audience response is “very slightly wrong.” If illusion is impeded by that coolness, it is of course the result of a procedure creating distance to the stage events by which Shakespeare “wished the audience to respond in an entirely new way to his hero.”26 This, I suggest, is one of the principal reasons why Shakespeare should have abruptly, as it may appear, resorted to classical discourse. Only in the context that this makes possible can attention be wholly directed, in Honigmann's words, to “Brutus' muddles.”

Placed at the center of attention, along with their activity, are the intellectual and emotional problems of historical subjects in a situation that, contrasting with the traditional story of antiquity, can be discerned as historically new; it is a situation involving unprecedented tasks for the solution of which the previously acquired, traditionally authorized patterns of thinking and behavior suddenly no longer provide adequate orientation. Thus they are subjected to inquiry. In Hamlet this will happen most obviously in the monologues, from which their essential instability derives. In Julius Caesar the text's interrogative strategy becomes thematic through the work of interpretation that is performed—in the double sense of the word—by the characters: “During the fearsome night many men try to construe events according to their own ends and desires. Brutus interprets murder as a sacrifice; many try to interpret Caesar's dream.”27 Cicero is given only nine lines in the whole play, most of them actually of a phatic nature. He seems to have been put in the play specifically to dramatize that emphasis on interpretation:

Indeed, it is a strange-disposed time:
But men may construe things, after their fashion,
Clean from the purpose of the things themselves.


Cicero's reading of “portentous things” is by no means the only example. Passages probing the differences between “seeming,” “appearing,” “acting,” “fashioning,” “construing,” and the world of reality occur thirty-five times in the text.28 They are part of an exploration that is directed, not at the subjectivity generally of human perception and the limits of all human understanding,29 but at a specific historical situation. The various devices used by Shakespeare for the purpose are too numerous to be accidental. From a distance, Cicero puts the gnoseological problem as such in words but remains even more passive and ineffective than the many other intellectuals in the play—the soothsayer, Artemidorous, Cinna.30 This may reflect the way in which Elizabethan intellectuals felt in the face of the breakdown of the traditional alliance between intellectuals and the crown, forged during the Reformation. Julius Caesar's activity as interrogative text is in search of the aesthetic object to be appropriated, that is, the historical subject working at historical change. Text is generated accordingly. Brutus has 720 lines. We are being continually reminded of Caesar even when he does not himself speak, but 150 lines are sufficient for all he has to say in the play. He represents what is equally well-known to Romans and Elizabethans, absolutist authority. What the text directs attention to is the process of countering Caesar's power along with its consequences, and hence to the character of Brutus. Leaving the programmatic details of the political struggle as vague as they are helps audiences to concentrate on the underlying process.

The plebeian scenes, so often discussed primarily in terms of timeless psychology, can also be read as part of the exploration of the historical activities involved in that process. In 3.2., little is left of the intelligently aggressive wordplay of the citizens, especially of the cobbler, right at the beginning of the play. In the end, law and order are restored, but initially the plebeian wit of Shakespeare's carpenters and cobblers (and, elsewhere, gravediggers) clearly triumphs. As can be shown by dialogue analysis, a considerable though ultimately illusory power base is built for the cobbler by the calculated granting or withholding of information. But why does Shakespeare introduce such self-assured plebeians at all if at their reappearance all their self-assurance has evaporated, and they are shown to be such easy prey to rhetorical manipulation? The answer is implicit in the question: the first scene on “A Street” is needed not merely to open up right at the beginning a representation signaled to the audience as closed by the very genre of the play, but also as a precondition for the later ones. Such guided audience response is aimed less at representing changes in the psychology of the masses than at the process they inevitably help to constitute. Another problem is thus raised, new certainly as far as the way and context of posing it is concerned. In this theatrical situation unprecedented in Elizabethan England, in which the republican revolutionaries become active, it is shown, over and above what the masses may actually be like, that there is no choice but to mobilize them if the political power struggle is to be won. This part of a new dramatic discourse is emerging slowly under the conditions of the Elizabethan popular theater where patricians have to share the stage with plebeians and where closed forms of representation can be opened at significant moments by a host of theatrical signs.

It was characteristic of Samuel Johnson that he should have been affected by Shakespeare's opposition of discourses, but only as a disturbance causing him deep anxiety. “A quibble was the golden apple,” he wrote in his Preface to Shakespeare “for which he would always turn aside from his career, or stoop from his elevation.”31


  1. See Wolfgang Klein, “Ungebundene Menschlichkeit,” Sinn und Form 41 (1989): 463 concerning our study of history without illusions; and Thomas Metscher, “Geschichte, Humanität, Utopie,” in Gulliver 6: Shakespeare inmitten der Revolution (Berlin, 1979), 26, for JC as a play about revolution.

  2. My tentative description of the new canon is based on the following publications: J. Drakakis, ed., Alternative Shakespeare, (1985); J. Dollimore and A. Sinfield, eds., Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism (Manchester, 1985); T. Hawkes, That Shakespearian Rag. Essays of a Critical Process (London, 1986); P. Parker and G. Hartman, eds., Shakespeare and the Question of Theory (N.Y.: Methuen, 1985); J. Howard and M. F. O'Connor, eds., Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology (N.Y., 1987); and L. Tennenhouse, Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare's Genres (N.Y., 1986).

  3. See Ernst Th. Sehrt, “Julius Caesar: Brutus,” in Sympathielenkung in den Dramen Shakespeares, eds., W. Habicht and I. Schabert (Munich: Fink, 1979), 65-71, esp. 65, who correctly criticizes the previous critical neglect of the blood ritual as stage spectacle—All references are to The Arden edition, ed. T. S. Dorsch (London: Methuen, 1975).

  4. See Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor with John Jowett and William Montgomery, William Shakespeare. A Textual Companion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 386-91.

  5. See Christopher Hill, “The Many-Headed Monster,” in Change and Continuity in Seventeenth Century England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975), 182.

  6. Michael Bristol, “‘Lenten Butchery’: Legitimation Crisis in Coriolanus,” in Shakespeare Reproduced, 207-24.

  7. See Thomas Sorge, “The Failure of Orthodoxy in Coriolanus,” in ibid., 225-41.

  8. Robert Weimann, “Bifold Authority in Shakespeare's Theatre,” Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988): 403-4, esp. 402.

  9. Ibid., 402-3.

  10. Ibid., 402.

  11. See Robert Weimann, “Mimesis in Hamlet: Spiegel und Wirklichkeit,” in Shakespeare und die Macht der Mimesis (Berlin: Aufbau, 1988), 219-55.

  12. Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy (London: Methuen, 1985), 90.

  13. Our approach draws on Emile Benveniste's linguistic distinction between declarative, imperative, and interrogative statements in Problems in General Linguistics (Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press, 1971).

  14. Belsey, Critical Practice (London: Methuen, 1986), 92.

  15. Walter Cohen, Drama of a Nation. Public Theater in Renaissance England and Spain (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 302-3.

  16. Leeds Barroll, “A New History for Shakespeare and His Time,” Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988): 441-64.

  17. The continuity of the project is emphasized, for example, by Paul N. Siegel, Shakespeare's English and Roman History Plays. A Marxist Approach (London: Associated University Presses, 1986).

  18. Harry Levin, “General Introduction,” in The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1974), 20.

  19. See Belsey, Subject of Tragedy, 101-3 for a similar interpretation.

  20. Sidney Homann, When the Theater Turns to Itself: The Aesthetic Metaphor in Shakespeare (London: Associated University Presses, 1981).

  21. Cf. Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in Collected Works, vol. 11 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1979), 104-5.

  22. See Wilfried Schröder, “War die französische Revolution auch eine Epochenzäsur in der kulturellen, künstlerischen und literarischen Entwicklung? Probleme und Problemfelder,” Weimarer Beiträge 34 (1988): 37.

  23. Marx, “Eighteenth Brumaire,” 104, 106.

  24. Caroline Spurgeon, Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935), 346-47.

  25. E. A. J. Honigmann, Seven Tragedies (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1976), 12.

  26. Ibid., 30.

  27. Jean Howard, Shakespeare's Art of Orchestration. Stage Technique and Audience Response (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982), 145.

  28. Robert Miola, Shakespeare's Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 79-80.

  29. That is the approach of René E. Fortin in “Julius Caesar: An Experiment in Point of View,” Shakespeare Quarterly 19 (1968): 341-47.

  30. Honigmann, Seven Tragedies, 38.

  31. “Preface to Shakespeare,” in Criticism: The Major Texts, ed., W. J. Bate (New York: Harcourt, 1970), 213.

James Howe (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: “The Cause of Suffering and the Birth of Compassion in Julius Caesar,” in A Buddhist's Shakespeare: Affirming Self-Deconstructions, Associated University Presses, 1994, pp. 96-113.

[In the following essay, Howe interprets Julius Caesar in terms of Buddhist conceptions of samsara (the endless cycle of worldly life and death) and compassion arising from the acceptance of life as suffering.]

In several subsequent plays, Shakespeare enlarged his exploration of both the frightening and the fortunate implications of this awareness of our confusion about the self and the world. Indeed, as he began more and more to emphasize the tragic mode of perception, his shift may seem natural. Tragedy (and history, as we have seen with Richard III) is specifically the discourse of the empowered. Linking themselves to the inexorable turning of the wheel of fortune, its principal characters place the ebb and flow of political power in the foreground. As a result, from the Buddhist point of view, they also enact in this foreground the first two of the Buddha's Four Noble Truths, perceptions that by now may seem familiar: first, that suffering is a constant in human life; and second, that the cause of this suffering is our mistaken belief in a solid self and our consequent endless self-entrapment in the vicious cycle of hope and fear—our constant striving to achieve happiness by satisfying our desires and, once they are satisfied, our fear of losing this needed self-confirmation.1

The play Julius Caesar presents this confusion differently than Merchant. Instead of closing interpretive options down, it opens its major events and characters to ambiguous, even contradictory, possibilities. At the same time, it presents one character of extremely noble intentions who is driven to face his impasse-situation more directly than any character we have so far examined. Thus this play dramatizes an alternative version of confusion, as well as a fuller representation of how it works within us to create an impasse situation, and of how impossible such situations are to escape. Awareness of the cycle of samsara is in this way shown to be the frightening yet necessary ground of nirvana.

The play's political foreground introduces us to the openness of our interpretive options at once, with the ambiguous phenomenon of the rising Caesar. The humor of his supporters the plebeians, their plays on “sole” and “soul,” on “with awl” and “withal,” their ambiguous use of “conscience,” “mend,” and “out” (1.1.13-26), are too obvious to seem clever. This wit has a further political agenda, however, for it shows the plebeians' deliberate defiance of the tribunes' authority. When with greater eloquence and, apparently, reason, these tribunes chastise them as a changeable mob (1.1.32-62), the criticism therefore seems just and Caesar's cause suspect. However, we might also hear self-righteousness in the tribunes' rebukes, and we might remember that the discourse of authority often cloaks itself in the language of reason. When in addition we remember that these tribunes are elected to represent the interests of these very plebeians, it becomes clear that they have a vested interest in opposing their own constituency's support of Caesar: if he becomes emperor, the tribunes will be out of a job. Further, it is the tribune Murellus's unaccountable failure to understand the cobbler's trade (1.1.12) which makes the circumstances of the plebeians' puns seem contrived, and this in turn undercuts what cleverness they may have. The first scene, then, introduces the fact of social discord in Rome, torn by two antagonistic political attitudes between which we cannot choose.2 This political ambiguity intensifies in the second scene. Despite Cassius's egoism and his admission that he is trying to manipulate Brutus (1.1.308-15), his cause has great appeal. His distrust of unnatural ambition; his idea of the republic's senate as a group of noble equals; and, in general, his appeal to the idea of freedom—all have power. On the other hand, in act 2 we see the private side of things more fully, and this does not give us confidence in the conspirators. At 2.1.10-34, Brutus makes it clear that he will kill Caesar because Caesar “may” forget his human limitations and the general good. Brutus concedes that he has never known Caesar's “affections sway'd / More than his reason,” but because he “might change” he must die. Under such reasoning, which of us is safe?

This discomfort with the conspirators is shortly generalized. Act 2, scene 2 fills us to satiation with their deceit. The plotters crowd into Caesar's house, permeating his private world with manipulative deceivers so that his death seems inescapable. At the same time, Calphurnia's concern for Caesar, and his for her, humanizes him. This domestic scene that precedes the murder makes it difficult to see Caesar as the monster pictured in the conspirators' rhetoric. By the end of this second act, we are watching the inexorable progression of events with a kind of helpless horror.

The larger dimensions of existence that stand behind the political foreground and occasionally penetrate it (the dimensions of prodigy, prophecy, dream, and ghost) are even more intensely mysterious, both to the characters and to us, though in different ways. Casca summarizes the characters' general insecurity in an inscrutable universe with a literal description of its behavior: “all the sway of earth / Shakes like a thing unfirm” (1.1.3-4). However, to us in the audience there is another level of uncertainty. The unnatural events described at 1.3.3-28 and 63-68 (and again at 2.2.17-24), as well as Calphurnia's dream in act 2, scene 2, each have equally plausible yet contradictory interpretations, and in each case both of these interpretations are “true.” In the case of the prodigies and unnatural events, only one interpretation is given onstage, by Cassius: that Caesar has grown larger than any man should, and is about to create an imbalance in the universe by becoming emperor. The prodigies of nature reflect the unnaturally “prodigious” growth of Caesar (1.3.77-78), such

that heaven hath infus'd them with these spirits,
To make them instruments of fear and warning
Unto some monstrous state.


From this perspective, the prodigies are signs that Caesar should not be crowned. However, there is an unspoken but well-known Elizabethan alternative. These prodigies come immediately after the scene in which the conspiracy plan is broached to Brutus. They can therefore be “read” as a cosmic reflection of the horror of the thing planned (and to be accomplished, as we in the audience know from our history books): the murder of Caesar. If he is not in fact crowned, he is certainly viewed by the general populace as their leader; he is all but emperor; he is certainly the order-figure.3 One conventional response for an Elizabethan audience would be to see the prodigies as reflections of the chaos that will inevitably attend the murder of authority. Both these possibilites are proven “true” in the play. In act 3, scene 1, we will see that Caesar is indeed ripe for dying, yet the rest of the play will present the universal chaos that results from his death.

The same contradiction applies to Calphurnia's dream of Caesar's bleeding statue (2.2.76-79). She herself interprets the dream as a portent that Caesar will die if he goes to the senate on the Ides of March. Decius deliberately tries to mislead Caesar into the opposite interpretation, that “great Rome shall suck / Reviving blood” from Caesar's leadership (2.2.87-88). Despite Decius's deceitful motive, it is again clear that both interpretations are “true.” Caesar does die, as Calphurnia fears. But also, his spirit lives and nourishes the empire. Antony's swearing vengeance is accomplished in Caesar's name, and Cassius and Brutus both die with his name on their lips.4

This is a universe, then, all of whose dimensions—the individual, the political, and the cosmic; the human, the animal, and the heavenly; the dead and the living—are ambiguous and yet interpenetrate one another. This is a play world which is not only opaque and unreadable, but inescapable as well. Brutus is placed at the center of this pressurized world's gravity, its microcosm. The division within his mind that he vents in 2.1.10-34 parallels the political division in society and is a microcosm of the uncertain cosmos. The shift from the public places of act 1 to the private homes of act 2, which are then themselves penetrated by the group of conspirators, suggests a similar interpenetration of public and private life. Jonathan Goldberg, in a different context, and focusing on act 1 alone, has made a similar observation about the “continuity of inner life and outer life, private and public” (Goldberg 1983, 168).

The claustrophobic nature of this situation for Brutus is intensified by our awareness in the audience that he is trapped in a double-bind situation, partly self-created. On the one hand, his soliloquy opening act 2, scene 1, shows Brutus to have the noblest and most unselfish of motives: he will be his nation's savior, even though it means sacrificing the man he loves. He creates for himself an imperative for action even though certainty is impossible. Given his public conscience and his personal identification with his own integrity, he has no choice but to kill Caesar. However, things are never so simple. The Elizabethan audience might recognize a second moral imperative: to avoid the risk of civil war, general misery, and universal discord.5 Although Brutus himself does not state this view, we cannot miss it. Calphurnia reminds us of it at 2.2.30-31:

When beggars die there are no comets seen;
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.

If there were further doubt, of course the events subsequent to the assassination would be enough to resolve them. Caesar must not be killed.

Nor are we merely passive observers of Brutus's no-win situation. We too have seen Caesar's blind pride. We have heard him say, in assessing Cassius,

I rather tell thee what is to be fear'd
Than what I fear; for always I am Caesar.


And we have watched him find a way to keep his image of greatness while justifying his decision not to go to the Capitol:

Cannot, is false; and that I dare not, falser:
I will not come today.


Although we may see the weakness in Brutus's argument, we have information of our own. We too are pulled in two directions at once about Caesar, and this uncertainty allows us to appreciate the double-sidedness of Brutus's position. Yet it is his position, not ours; it is his insistence on nobility, on taking action and making things right when he cannot know what “right” is, that most fully entraps him.

Caesar, though ambiguous, seems less complicated. He is ignorant from the start. Uniquely, he thinks he knows who he is and what he wants. Like Richard of Gloucester, he resorts to the stage to get the crown, opening the play with a formal procession, a show of power and majesty for the city (“Set on, and leave no ceremony out,” 1.2.11). As part of this show, he enacts “appropriate” humility (offstage) by refusing the offer of the crown three times (1.2.221-47). But although Caesar knows the pageant he performs to be a pretense, the role he plays in it is of the great man he actually believes himself to be. It is because of this belief in the role he plays (in defiance of his knowledge that it is a role) that the script he writes for himself is so easily incorporated into that written by the conspirators. He, not the soothsayer, is a dreamer.

Despite his inner conflict, Brutus is not radically different. It is his belief in his own nobility that shows his blindness. His discomfort with the secrecy and deceit needed to kill a great leader (2.1.77-85), and his discomfort in general with widespread killing, not to mention chaos, indicates not only his moral values, but his naïveté. He still believes in the world's stability and clarity. He believes in himself and his ability to save Rome, and so he joins the conspiracy. It is, ironically, these naïvely self-serving beliefs that make him the prime architect of just that instability and chaos from which he meant to save his beloved country.

It is also this naïveté that moves him to ritualize the murder.6 Brutus wishes to transform the assassination into a pure and cleansing act: “Let's be sacrificers, but not butchers,” “purgers, not murderers” (2.1.166, 180). He wishes to enact a tragedy with Aristotelian effects. The audience, Rome, will be purged of its impurity. He is therefore scrupulous about the form of the act. Every move must reflect those high principles that alone can justify the deed. Thus he refuses to swear an oath:

… unto bad causes swear
Such creatures as men doubt; but do not stain
The even virtue of our enterprise,
Nor th' insuppressive mettle of our spirits.


And thus he leads a carefully selected cast of Roman aristocrats to Caesar, that they may first display the nature of the victim to be sacrificed, then perform the ritual murder itself. They begin by asking him to be “moved,” to change his mind in human sympathy for another, and his reaction shows that Brutus's guess was right. Caesar delivers a showpiece of tragic hybris (3.1.58-73). He compares himself to the one star perfect enough to be constant—the “northern star,” the pole star about whose central position the heavens revolve. He cannot even “pray to move” (3.1.59). He believes in his role of righteous power, a role that the circling conspirators provide him the occasion to play out to its ultimate self-apotheosis when Cinna renews the request for mercy, and Caesar again refuses: “Hence! wilt thou lift up Olympus?” (3.1.74). Caesar is revealed as the appropriate victim. He deserves to be sacrificed.

Caesar has risen to great heights, and is on the brink of being crowned emperor. The wheel of fortune turns. From the tragic perspective—from the perspective of Brutus's ritual pattern of action—Caesar should fall now. We cannot fail to see this. When, in his funeral oration, Brutus emphasizes that he killed Caesar “as he was / ambitious” (3.2.26- 27), that he gave him “death for his / ambition” (28-29), Brutus explains not only his own motives, but also the relationship between the wheel of fortune, hybris, and the fall of the tragic hero. He appeals, that is, to our sense of theatrical genre as well as to our political understanding. If there is uncertainty about the political efficacy of killing an order-figure, the act is further justified by appealing to the rules of tragedy. It is mystified by its ritual/aesthetic form.

As part of this ritual, each conspirator stabs the victim. Then, the sacrifice done, the circle opens again to show the victim's corpse to the populace, and to complete the ritual:

                    Stoop, Romans, stoop,
And let us bathe our hands in Caesar's blood
Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords;
Then walk we forth, even to the market-place,
And waving our red weapons o'er our heads,
Let's all cry, “Peace, freedom, and liberty!”


With their arms and swords splashed with blood, Brutus's cry of “Peace” may seem too obvious a mystification to succeed. Yet we do not question Brutus's noble sincerity about Rome. Rather, we question his wisdom, for it is this very sincerity that empowers his belief in the righteousness of his ritual, and in the truthfulness to himself of his role in it. Ironically, the sacrificer at last seems as naïve, as blind, as ignorant, as does his victim. They both believe equally in their self-created and grandiose roles: Caesar as emperor, Brutus as savior.

This grandiose view and its exposure is made virtually explicit in the next exchange:

Cas. … How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!
Bru. How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport,
That now on Pompey's basis lies along
No worthier than the dust!
Cas. … So oft as that shall be,
So often shall the knot of us be call'd
The men that gave their country liberty.


From the self-glorifying point of view of the conspirators, this is such a great deed that it will be remembered through reenactment in “many ages hence,” “in states unborn and accents yet unknown.” From the point of view of the theater audience, however, the speech is self-referential: this present representation of Julius Caesar is obviously the ready example of such a reenactment, of such a remystification of the murder. And, this metadramatic dimension of the play opened, we may see that Caesar played to the cue that the conspirators offered him because it was perfectly designed for his own script; he was perfectly prepared to glorify himself. He fits himself precisely into the tragic script prepared for him by Brutus by playing his own role, his own self-image. Caesar, that is, is perfectly cast in two plays at once, the second (Brutus's) enclosing the first (his own). He is self-entrapped. Shakespeare makes this fact evident by representing it in transparently theatrical form.

Seen from Brutus's perspective, this tragic play within the play has a different effect, one very like that of illusionism in the visual arts. (For a fuller discussion of this issue, see the analyses of Masaccio, Mantegna, Romano, and Carracci in Appendix A.) It enacts a “real” event, the murder of Caesar, the effect of which depends on viewer recognition that it is not what it seems to be (not a murder). Thus the artist, Brutus, gives it a ritualized tragic form, and it is this form of ritual sacifice, this artwork, which is in fact the “reality” Brutus intends. He makes the manufactured nature of its form transparent so that he himself will be seen to be inscribed within it, so that his motives will become more important to the viewer than the deed itself, so that his motives will determine how the deed is received. Brutus gives a carefully crafted construction that contains himself as gift to the people of Rome. In both self-glorification and selfless idealism, he tries to make himself rather than Caesar the central issue of his tragedy.

This self-ennoblement may work briefly: we see the murder from the tragic (rather than the political) perspective that Brutus gives it, and see that from this perspective blind Caesar needed to die. However, like Caesar, Brutus plays his role out to its ultimate extension, insisting on enacting a conclusion to his tragedy, a funeral ritual in which he will explain the meaning of his tragic act, will spell out his motive. Like Caesar too, Brutus plays his role perfectly. And, as in the case of Caesar, this perfectly played role destroys him; he is blind to its danger because he believes in its “truth”—that he is indeed his country's savior and that this will be evident to everyone, once explained. He has the naïveté of the idealist: his motives are pure, and so his acts must be efficacious.

Therefore he lets Antony live, he lets Antony speak, and he lets Antony speak last. Brutus is scrupulously fair, and thereby he plays into Antony's still more all-enclosing script.7

A funeral ceremony seems a fitting conclusion to a tragedy. The deceased will be memorialized and mourned. His death will somehow be rationalized. The participants will be emotionally purged. The whole community will come together to contemplate their common mortality, exemplified by Caesar, the great man who fell. The memento mori theme is implicit: along with personal feeling there is a distancing, philosophical view of human life and its transience. Human life is filtered through an aesthetic lens.

Brutus plans to shape the image this lens projects, but so does Antony. We see him commit himself to avenge Caesar's death almost as soon as he learns of it (3.1.259-75). There is therefore dramatic irony in our recognition of the difference between what the Romans hear and what we hear. This irony seems to distance us comfortably from the mob, his audience onstage. We are uniquely in a position to appreciate his cleverness in manipulation, without ourselves being manipulated. This cleverness extends even to Antony's ability to seem to follow Brutus's rules not to say anything against the murderers (3.1.245), yet get the opposite of the effect Brutus intends. He insinuates suspicion; his art defamiliarizes the tragedy made by Brutus. Caesar's death is demystified.

Once Antony crystalizes our uncertainties about the assassination, he establishes our common ground: “Then I, and you, and all of us fell down” (3.2.191). This is true for us in the theater as well as for the mob onstage. Brutus's tragedy has raised us from the political to the philosophical view of Caesar. As Antony returns us again and again to the fact of Caesar's death, we are reminded again and again of human frailty, of our own mortality. Pacified by our conviction of our own superiority to the mob, we too allow ourselves to be leveled. We too will die. Our distance from the Roman funeral audience diminishes in spite of the dramatic irony of the situation. Despite our awareness that Antony is deliberately being manipulative, he engages us in the theater audience as directly as he does the audience onstage. Not only does the so-called “mob” change its sympathies from Brutus to Caesar, but so do we.

Then he lifts the mantle from Caesar's corpse and shows “us all” the naked, bleeding body covered with wounds, Caesar's “dumb mouths” (3.2.225). The illusionist Antony displays the truth behind his funereal enactment, which is also the truth behind the ritual of purification staged by Brutus, as well as the implication of Caesar's own pursuit of power. This revelation affects us as do the changed vantage points we take when faced with Holbein's Ambassadors. Never again will we see Brutus, or the action of the play generally, outside of the context of death, outside of our sense of both their and our mortality. The funeral is not merely a turning point for the plot and for our feelings about the characters. It is also a turning point for our consciousness of ourselves. What we have been led to know, we cannot unknow. Whether we think by analogy of illusionist art, or of Holbein's forcing us to change our vantage point, the effect is the same. We are now, by the very things we see, in collusion with the artist whose artistry caused these shifts. We are aware of seeing as Antony would have us see.8 Brutus for a moment caused us to suspend judgment about his murder of Caesar by concentrating our attention on its aesthetic form, on the murder as tragedy. Antony's ceremony has carried us a step further. We see the transparently constructed form of the funeral; we also see the gap between this perception and the mob's blindness to it. This second level of awareness shifts our attention from the form of the funeral to the more elemental fact of its transparency. Antony, that is, deepens the illusionism begun by Brutus. Seeing through the funeral, we are consumed (as the mob is) by the “reality” underlying it. The political influence desired by Brutus is exposed as essentially theatrical, just as Caesar's was.9 In its expression of universal uncertainty, of death, and of actual personal loss, Antony's art opens to the full dimensions of the terrifying world in which we now find ourselves implicated. There is no welcoming refuge, no orderly status quo, either with an emperor or with a republic.

It is as if during the funeral we gradually become aware of a deepening vanishing point in this play, and even of multiple systems of perspective. Its ironies and contradictions begin to cluster together. The second play within the play, Brutus's, ends the tragedy of Caesar while at the same time being the act of self-assertion that begins his own. It is the culmination of the anti-Caesar side of the meanings of the prodigies and of Calphurnia's dream, and at the same time the beginning of a chain reaction that will fulfill their second meanings: that Caesar should not be killed and that Rome will be nourished by his blood. The full implications of Brutus's double bind will now be enacted.

This second movement is underlined in subsequent scenes by the aftermath to Caesar's now-demystified assassination. The many-leveled uncertainty of the first two acts intensifies into human chaos: Cinna the poet's dismemberment, the senatorial bloodbath, civil war. Smaller reflections of this discord make it seem directionless, as if in a moral and political void, yet nonetheless universal and inescapable. The avengers decide whom to purge, even to trading off their own relatives with one another (4.1.1-6). Antony schemes to reduce Caesar's legacy to Rome, even though it was one of the foundations of his funeral eloquence (7-9); and he turns against Lepidus in the rest of act 4, scene 1, without any clear need to do so. In this scene, indeed, Shakespeare seems to demystify an Antony who has himself been the agent of Brutus's demystification. Antony's image as agent of justified chaos is balanced against an image of Antony as self-seeking gangster/terrorist.10 As the disagreements between Antony and Octavius are renewed (5.1.16-20), and as the more prolonged one between Cassius and Brutus is added to it (scenes 2 and 3 in act 4), there seems to be no corner of the play's world which is free of blind destructiveness. There is savagery and chaos and betrayal on all sides.

The full irony of Brutus's predicament is now clear. The man who would be noble must follow the implications of his noble convictions to their end. He does so, and achieves the opposite of his intentions. Because of his nobility he, more than any of the other characters, must face the world's ambiguity and mystery at their most intense.

At the same time that our vantage point is distanced from the play to see this large context, however, we are also drawn into the depths of its mystery, as the lines of perspective that issue from a painting's vanishing point enclose its viewers. Our distance allows a panoramic awareness of the play's full chaotic canvas; in this awareness, Antony and Brutus and Julius Caesar are merely the figures it contains. This awareness, in turn, intensifies our sympathy for these figures as they become victims. Antony's funeral teaches us to see far more than he, and thus even to feel sympathetic toward his enemy Brutus.

This mystery, and the split awareness with which we experience it, is well illustrated in the second half of the play by Caesar's ghost (in act 4, scene 3). From one point of view this ghost, whether hallucinatory or “real,” seems a penetration into the mundane from another dimension. We have already seen the prophetic truth of dreams, as well as the prophetic prodigies of nature. Whether objective or subjective, the ghost exists as a similar mystery in Brutus's consciousness. This mystery is further deepened, and made to seem inescapable, however, by the fact that we experience it as both objective and subjective at the same time.

It comes to Brutus when he is restless from his long wrangle with Cassius; he has called for music, a book, anything to distract him. We know that he killed Caesar in spite of loving him, and that Brutus's sense of morality is meticulous. One natural assumption, therefore, is that the ghost is a hallucination, a representation of his divided, perhaps guilty, mind. He alone sees it, and he alone hears those nearby crying out in their sleep.11

However, we have also heard Antony invoke “Caesar's spirit” in alliance with the goddess of discord (3.1.270), and we have seen the objectively real chaos which has become ubiquitous, in private as well as in Rome generally, and in the animal and human as well as the heavenly dimensions. In this play's world, Caesar's spirit can with equal plausibility be seen as an objective presence, as another “real” representation of discord, just as indeed can Antony himself. Even the play's title seems to suggest this continuing presence.

The discussion by Leonard Tennenhouse of the queen's two bodies is suggestive of this duality (although Tennenhouse argues with reference to the history plays and, at greater length, to Hamlet; see Tennenhouse 1986, 79-93). He points out the distinction between the natural body of Elizabeth the individual person and the symbolic body of Elizabeth the icon of the state. This double dimension applies equally to Caesar, and therefore to his ghost. On the one hand it exists objectively as the spirit of Caesar and of the empire that Caesar would have brought about. On the other hand, it represents Brutus's personal feelings of loss and guilt from the killing of the individual who was his friend.

Here, then, Brutus begins the process of facing the full horror of the double bind in which his own nobility placed him. Since the first act he has been “with himself at war” (1.2.46). Now he begins to feel the pain of the vicious cycle of samsara, of the self-destructive nature of desire, even more acutely. He has tried to break out of this cycle by denying the fact of Caesar's natural body, obscuring the fact that he murdered a private person whom he loved. He tried to kill the spirit of Caesar, to divorce his iconic boy from his personal one, to transform Caesar's body and blood into ceremonial symbols. The ghost's integration of its objective and subjective existence represents the impossibility of Brutus divorcing the two. In seeing Brutus with this ghost, we see him exposed to the inevitability of his failure.

From this point of view, then, it is also inevitable that he will kill himself, for there seem no other options so long as he clings to his sense of honor and nobility. With Cassius dead, Brutus seems accurate in his assessment that he has lost the war. He will therefore kill himself not “to prevent / The time of life” (5.1.104-5), but because he believes that it is all but over anyway. He will do it himself rather than have an enemy do it. He can at least keep the independent self-mastery that his noble self-image requires.

He does not do it from a failure of nerve, as Messala says Cassius did: “Mistrust of good success hath done this deed” (5.3.66). Nor does he turn his face away as Cassius did, nor have another person plunge the sword into him. In these respects Brutus seems more right, more noble. He lives up to his own high standards.

However, he does not see beyond those standards, as we have been taught to do. He seems merely to believe that he has miscalculated in political and military terms:

Our enemies have beat us to the pit.
It is more worthy to leap in ourselves
Than tarry till they push us.


He demonstrates his self-mastery by ending himself as he did Caesar, with an impeccably enacted ritual. Perhaps this self-mastery, indeed, implies an acceptance of fate that might exemplify a kind of Stoic heroism. However, just before killing himself, Brutus shows the egoism of such acceptance:

I shall have glory by this losing day
More than Octavius and Mark Antony
By this vile conquest shall attain unto.


He is still wedded to his nobility; he kills himself not in wise renunciation, but for a greater reputation in the world than he could otherwise achieve. As in his ritual murder of Caesar, so in his own ritual suicide Brutus means to mystify a real death, this time in the self-interested pursuit of fame. He makes a display of his nobility for future generations to admire. In this context his final words, “Caesar, now be still, / I kill'd not thee with half so good a will” (5.5.50-51), suggests that his suicide is also an escape from guilt, an erasure of the only stain on his honor.

Thus the root issue remains untouched by Brutus. The self-destructiveness inherent in desire was clear to us in Caesar's death, but not to Brutus. Even more obviously here at the end, then, Brutus reenacts this truth, that to keep the noble identity in which he believes, he must obliterate himself. The pain of the dilemma of ego is taken to its ultimate implication, to the self's final recourse in escaping pain. At last, it is not the world, but the self, which is inescapable.13

Dead, Brutus is proclaimed by his enemy to be “the noblest Roman of them all,” the type against which the concept of humanity is measured and defined:

          … the elements
So mix'd in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, “This was a man!”

(5.5.68, 73-75)

There is no certain reason to doubt Antony's sincerity. Although the victor often rewrites history to his own advantage, he is not always conscious of what he does. However, we must be suspicious, for it is the kind of thing we have seen him do before, quite consciously, when in the funeral scene he rewrote Brutus's version of Caesar's death in order to open his own terrorist campaign. Having demystified Brutus's ritual in the third act, he now tries to remystify Brutus in the play's final ritual. But here too, of course, the attempt is self-serving. Antony the victor is at once glorified by beating a glorified opponent, and ennobled by his gracious show of noble magnanimity.

In fact, though, whether this closing speech is sincere or consciously self-serving does not matter. Either way, it cannot ennoble Brutus in our eyes. We already know too much. Instead, it shows that Antony too has failed to learn the lesson of Brutus's failure—failed to learn the very lesson that, by distancing us from the action, he himself has taught us to see. Antony is as blind as Brutus and Caesar.14 Not a new stability, then, but a renewal of the flux of the endless struggle for power is placed squarely in the foreground of the play's conclusion. The Roman ideal, “glories,” remains on Octavius's lips in the final line.

We can now see, thanks to Antony, the blindness that always motivates this struggle—that of Antony and Octavius, that of Brutus, that of Caesar. Antony implicated us in the play's action during the funeral by swaying us with the mob, defamiliarizing tragedy, exposing Brutus, and reminding us that we, like the characters in the play, will die. We can see our common humanity with Julius Caesar. We can see that it is Brutus's noble self-image that blinds him and that makes his fall inevitable. Yet by the end we can also sympathize with Brutus, for he sees at last what we have seen since the funeral, that there is no escape. At the same time, because the subsequent action of this tragedy has purged us of the false view of the world held by Antony and Caesar as well as Brutus, we are distanced into a new self-awareness. Tragedy has done its work of renewal on its audience. In this awareness we see through the values taught by Roman society. We see through these values' confirmation of the solid self on which ego depends, but without losing our fellow feeling for the characters who suffer in this delusion. We find ourselves in a Derridean gap where society's conventions of meaning are dissolved—and, therefore, where the space necessary for the beginning of Buddhist wisdom has been cleared.

However, this space is very frightening. Although it is an emptiness that to the awakened mind displays itself as fullness, it is at the same time a lonely place “of desolation” (Trungpa 1976a, 151):

The attainment of enlightenment from ego's point of view is extreme death, the death of self, the death of me and mine, the death of the watcher. It is the ultimate and final disappointment.

(Trungpa 1976a, 6)

Brutus demonstrates in literal terms the truth of this assertion. Faced with the possibility that he might be less noble than he had thought, Brutus chooses to kill himself. He illustrates the startling fact that the loss of our idea of ourselves as solid beings with stable identities, the loss of the idea of what one calls “I,” and the reciprocal recognition that the place we habitually think “we” fill in the world is actually a void, is in fact more frightening to us than the loss of life itself. From ego's point of view, that is, enlightenment is a threat, quite the reverse of what is “normally” desired. Therefore, Brutus retreats.

Yet as we have been taught by Brutus to see through this desire for the self, so the play leaves us with the alternative that he rejects. In this desolate landscape, it is true, we will be frighteningly alone, without the reference points of a solid world or self. “But,” Trungpa encourages us,

it is possible to make friends with the desolation and appreciate its beauty. Great sages … marry themselves to desolation, to the fundamental psychological aloneness …, the marriage of shunyata and wisdom in which your perception of aloneness suggests the needlessness of dualistic occupation. … We discover how samsaric occupations feed and entertain us. Once we see samsaric occupations as games, then that in itself is the absence of dualistic fixation, nirvana. Searching for nirvana becomes redundant at that point.

(Trungpa 1976a, 151).

Precisely by facing the fact of our samsaric “occupations” fully, we can come to feel free in them. We need not stop our normal activities, but simply see them differently. Trungpa says that “the phenomenal world is an outfit, it is a show, a self-existing show. It is a performance, living theater” (1975, 160) in which

you do not regard the situation outside as separate from you because you are so involved with the dance and play of life. … You experience no warfare of any kind, neither trying to defeat an enemy nor trying to achieve a goal.

(1973, 100)

We are wrong to think that we are our egos. They are merely our idea of what we are, an idea that Shakespeare teaches us through Julius Caesar to unlearn. We must get used to the idea of going to our own funeral every moment, rather than, like Brutus in Julius Caesar, staging someone else's. Thus this play positions us on the brink of a void which, when fully realized, becomes the ground of our fulfillment. It pushes us toward the perception that “we are just a speck of dust in the midst of the universe.” With such a recognition we can see that

at the same time our situation is very spacious, very beautiful and workable. In fact, it is very inviting, inspiring. If you are a grain of sand, the rest of the universe, all the space, all the room is yours, because you obstruct nothing, overcrowd nothing, possess nothing. There is tremendous openness. You are the emperor of the universe because you are a grain of sand.

(1976a, 6-7)

In this state we come to realize

that space contains matter, that matter makes no demands on space and that space makes no demands on matter. It is a reciprocal and open situation. … The Buddha had no ground, no sense of territory.

(1976a, 58-59)

And in such spaciousness we approach the Buddha's Third Noble Truth: that the constant pain created by hope and fear and desire is not to be evaded, as Brutus tried to do in his suicide; rather, it ends when it is so fully experienced that a state of nonstriving and nonopposition is achieved. For indeed it is this samsara that is in fact “the origin of the path” (1975, 56), the very basis of our liberation:

Generally, when the idea of ego is presented, the immediate reaction on the part of the audience is to regard it as a villain, an enemy. … But having seen the emotions as they are, we have more material with which to work creatively. This makes it quite clear that the notion of samsara is dependent upon the notion of nirvana, and the notion of nirvana is dependent upon the notion of samsara; they are interdependent. If there were no confusion, there would be no wisdom.

(1976a, 68)

This open situation, without a sense of territory, is not only personal in its implications, however. Like Shakespeare's play, it can radiate outward; its emptiness provides the space where Buddhist compassion can arise, a state of being quite different from normal pity. Trungpa explains the Buddhist stance toward ending the suffering of others:

… true compassion is ruthless, from ego's point of view, because it does not consider ego's drive to maintain itself. It is “crazy wisdom.” It is totally wise, but it is crazy as well, because it does not relate to ego's literal and simple-minded attempts to secure its own comfort.

(1973, 210)

In this state, we do not assume that what the sufferer thinks he wants is necessarily what is best for him. However, because we do not need to maintain “our territory,” we do not impose our own sense of what is right or good or helpful on him, either. Instead, we try to provide a situation in which there are no externally imposed demands or even expectations, in which the sufferer can be free from striving for a moment, become still, see himself more clearly than usual, perhaps experience his own emptiness and see for himself what is truly needed—whatever that may be for the particular individual. Thus,

… compassion is environmental generosity, without direction, without “for me” and without “for them.” … It implies larger scale thinking, a freer and more expansive way of relating to yourself and the world. … [It] is … not a matter of giving something to someone else, but it means giving up your demand and the basic criteria of the demand.

(1973, 99)

If we now look back at Julius Caesar from this large perspective which it has opened for us, Antony's tragedy in a later play may already seem implicit in his failure to learn the lesson Brutus teaches us here. And that of Brutus himself seems merely a more detailed reenactment of Caesar's; Brutus's tragedy clarifies—is about—Caesar's.

Indeed, from this view the two character's tragedies are reciprocal. As we see the tragic form of the death of Julius Caesar defamiliarized, and as we see Caesar's essential similarity to Brutus, the tragic form of Brutus's death is also defamiliarized. The action of the play as a whole becomes self-reflexive. Antony's exposure of Brutus's ritual, the killing of Julius Caesar, becomes the exposure of the full play's epitome. Shakespeare's tragedy is defamiliarized as well.

From this point of view, the title may refer to a specific act: Brutus's tragedy of Julius Caesar in act 3, scene 1. As Brutus's play is an attempt to mystify Caesar, so does Shakespeare's seem an attempt to mystify his Caesar, the sitting English monarch. It is a tragedy: it seems to heroicize the fallen by seeming to show the fall to be both unmerited and unfortunate. It gives full voice to the noble-sounding egalitarian rhetoric of the rebels Brutus and Cassius in order to show the chaos to which it leads. Set in Rome, the play seems at once to defend monarchy, and to posit this defense in universal rather than local terms. There seems no harm in it.

But if there is harm in Brutus's tragedy of Julius Caesar, there is also harm in Shakespeare's. Its self-reflexiveness subverts its seemings. Shakespeare has used an approved discourse, the tragic play, to subvert that discourse, to subvert the vehicle on which the self-justifying ideas of established social authority depend.15 By showing us that the cause of Brutus's impasse in the world is ours, is within ourselves, Shakespeare implies that it is avoidable. One need not be tragic, whether one is Roman or Elizabethan. Another life, one in which we feel Buddhist-style compassion for other beings in the “real” world as well as in a play, is possible.

At the end of The Merchant of Venice we imagined ourselves in the process of free fall, without tenable options, all positions having been rendered both threatening and self-contradictory. By the end of Julius Caesar we have progressed one step farther. The cause of this destructive impasse has been shown to be the need to solidify the self in a self-image, and then to live up to that image. This desire has been given the form of ambition, the will to nobility and power. If, in our fall after the dissolution of our secure self-belief in Merchant, we felt tempted to look for something solid to hold onto, something to cling to for security, a tree perhaps on the edge of a cliff, in Caesar we learn that nothing is solid. The tree will fall away when touched. Possibly there is no tree. Certainly, hoping for such a tree has caused our fall in the first place.

We have learned the Buddha's Second Noble Truth, that this desire to cling perpetuates and intensifies our pain in the world. We have also learned the Third, its antidote: the teaching not to escape, but to allow ourselves to be in the process of falling. Our compassion for Brutus is reciprocal: it has prepared us to allow this possibility for ourselves. Unlike Brutus, we must give ourselves up, not pursue an image of ourselves, no matter what the source: the Buddha, society, even the queen. And our example may clear a space in which others can do the same.

This, it may be, is precisely the subversive act to which Shakespeare leads us at the end of this play—not by precept, to be sure (that would be impossible, from both the Derridean and the Buddhist perspectives), but by guiding us to see through the transparent artwork that he entitles Julius Caesar. Seeing through it, we glimpse the now unmasked artist inscribed within. His project, unlike that of his characters, is not to mystify himself, but to reveal himself, to use the power of his art to undermine his authority as artist. In doing so, he laughs at the king's game he pretends to play; in teaching us to see his laughter, he beckons us to join him.


  1. This was discussed at the end of the last chapter. For an exposition of the Four Noble Truths, see Trungpa 1973, 151-57. For a brief indication of the Third and Fourth, see the Glossary.

  2. Robert S. Miola has argued the ambivalence of our perception of the character Julius Caesar from the perspective of the sixteenth-century tyrannicide debate. James Siemon argues to a similar conclusion from the point of view of the Protestant reformers' attack on images and metaphors which might be mistaken for truth (1985, 125-82). See also David Daiches 1976, 9; Lawrence Danson 1974, 51-53; Ernest Schanzer 1963, 70; and D. A. Traversi 1963, 12. For a diametrical opposition, see for example D. S. Brewer 1952 and J. Dover Wilson 1949, xxiii-xxv.

  3. See Northrop Frye 1967, 83. In a similar vein, J. Leeds Barroll (1958) argues that the play is a statement against civil war, and that it takes a Christian view of Roman history.

  4. 5.3.41-46 and 5.5.50-51. Kenneth Burke argues that Antony embodies the “Caesar-principle” for the rest of the play (1941, 333-34).

  5. Thus Irving Ribner, for example, explains the nature of the full tragedy in these moral terms, and sees an analogy between it and a morality play; both Caesar and Brutus are tragic because each, confronted with a moral choice, chooses wrongly. In his view, the tragedy's emphasis is mainly on “the exact process by which the hero is led to commit his error” (1960, 53). These conventions of private and public morality operate, however, despite the fact that the element of sacredness accorded medieval and Renaissance monarchs is lacking with Caesar, for of course he is neither crowned nor divinely anointed.

  6. This is true regardless of whether we see his enactment as Jonathan Goldberg does, i.e., as a deliberate pretense in the service of a good deed (1983, 165), or as Ralph Berry does, as “the priestly slaying of a victim” (1985, 75). However, Berry's argument that these Romans all play roles of “identity,” roles in which they believe they truly show and express themselves (1985, 79-83), leads more directly toward the relations between a character's self-image and the specific theatrical form he chooses for his action.

    The idea that Brutus ritualizes the murder of Caesar has often been observed. See for example Ralph Berry 1985, 75; Lawrence Danson 1974, 52-63; Leo Kirschbaum 1949, 520-24; and Peter Ure 1974, 24.

  7. Because these script manipulations involve both the order figure and the noble rebel, they represent a politically interesting shift in application from Jonathan Goldberg's description of a king: “Destiny is what is spoken. The king was subjected, shaped, imposed upon, by the language in which, and with which, he attempted to impose himself on others” (1983, 20). This observation leads Goldberg to the conclusion that the common metaphor of king as actor often “leads us to see the doubleness in performance in the royal view,” such that we see the paradox of “subversiveness in absolutist rhetoric” (1983, 120). Shakespeare's Caesar and Brutus, as I see their enactments, complicate their play's political ambiguity by playing out this paradox in the persons of both the àuthority figure and his challenger.

  8. Kenneth Burke calls particular attention to the metadramatic nature of Antony's speech, albeit to a different purpose: “Instead of being a dramatic character within the play, he is here made to speak as a critical commentator upon the play” (1941, 329-30).

  9. Some aspects of this complex metadramatic situation have been used by others to serve other argumentative ends. For instance, Jonathan Goldberg refers to the “inherent theatricalization” to which this play's “images of the nature of political power” call our attention (1983, 185). Leonard Tennenhouse argues more generally that aesthetics are always political (1986, 14-16). Antony Dawson believes that the metadramatic emphasis, without reference to its political implications, leads to “a deeper penetration of reality as we know it” (1978, xiv). Sidney Homan feels that the murder's self-reflexiveness calls our attention to it as the reenactment of a historical event, a reenactment that binds us to the stage audience (1981, 11-12). Ralph Berry, arguing from different premises, also believes that “the roots of the tragic action” in this play “lie in communal identity” (1985, 87).

  10. For a related interpretation of Antony, see Rosalie L. Colie (1974, 175) and Northrop Frye (1967, 26-27). R. A. Foakes suggests the pessimistic interpretation to which this view can lead: the “various themes in language and action all suggest a full circle of events in the play, civil war leading to civil war, blood to blood …” (1954, 263).

  11. Thus G. Wilson Knight sees Brutus as a kind of first draft for the character Macbeth ([1930] 1970, 120). However, Kenneth Burke argues that the ghost represents a version of “the Caesar-persona” ([1941] 1973, 343).

  12. Gordon Braden discusses Seneca's stoic ideal in precisely these terms. In it, “the classical drive for esteem is not being suppressed but only redirected toward a more secure and elite kind of self-esteem” (1985, 18). Again, “the philosophically virtuous life becomes a new version of the martial hero's traditional struggle with contingency” (1985, 19). The self is still involved in a power game, but the battlefield is now internalized; it becomes the individual will whose “operative values are, time and again, power and control” (1985, 20).

    Brutus's stature in his suicide is a bone of contention among scholars. Hugh M. Richmond asserts that his “complacent equanimity” and “pride” do not make him “a tragic hero” (1968, 103). Norman Council argues that by the last act Brutus's unorthodox view of honor (as guide rather than reward) “has become merely self-protective, isolated from any concern but its own preservation” (1973, 69). On the other side, Richard G. Moulton speaks for several generations: “In his fall he is glorious” (1966, 183). Matthew N. Proser goes so far as to write, “In his death Brutus achieves pure freedom” (1965, 59).

  13. Chögyam Trungpa refers in a similar context to the “suicidal approach to reality” (1976, 58).

  14. Thomas F. Van Laan argues that all the major characters have inflated self-images, into which they try unsuccessfully to fit themselves—which they try to “play,” and that the audience is extremely aware of this fact (1978, 152-53). Peter Ure makes related observations about Brutus (1974, 24).

  15. This is a point argued at some length above with reference to the Pyramus and Thisby play within A Midsummer Night's Dream. With Julius Caesar, Shakespeare has moved from subverting the characters in the stage audience by subverting a play within a play, to subverting the theater audience by subverting the whole play.

Dennis Kezar (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12206

SOURCE: “Julius Caesar and the Properties of Shakespeare's Globe,” in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 28, No. 1, Winter, 1998, pp. 18-46.

[In the following essay, Kezar maintains that in Julius Caesar Shakespeare explored the potential ‘irresponsibility’ of theater as it appropriates history, subverts audience response, and dismembers self-presentation.]

“The World makes many vntrue Constructions of these Speaches.”1

For an antitheatricalist such as Stephen Gosson, the Renaissance stage travesties the courtroom, leaving the defendant with no voice and replacing a single judge with an injudicious jury: “At stage plays it is ridiculous, for the parties accused to reply, no indifference of judgment can be had, because the worst sort of people have the hearing of it, which in respect of their ignorance, of their fickleness, and of their fury, are not to be admitted in place of judgment. A judge must be grave, sober, discreet, wise, well exercised in cases of government, which qualities are never found in the baser sort.”2 In his indictment of drama Gosson charges poets and players with reducing the accused to a lifeless and common text, “openly blown into the ears of many and made a byword” (p. 167); and he charges the audience, “carried away with every rumor,” with blind injustice: “they run together by heaps, they know not whither; and lay about with their clubs, they see not why. Which thing the ancient Philosophers considering called them a monster of many heads” (p. 164).

Conspicuously, few apologists for Renaissance theater directly engage Gosson's assertion that the stage is a law court perverted, that it submits false evidence to a biased, bacchant audience. Indeed, Thomas Heywood admits the malleability of this audience only when insisting upon the virtues of fictionalized exempla: “Lively and well spirited action … hath power to new mold the hearts of the spectators and fashion them to the shape of any noble and notable attempt.”3 Philip Sidney may obliquely concede the contingency of such modeling upon the audience's judgment when, for instance, he claims for the poet power “to bestow a Cyrus upon the world to make many Cyruses, if they will learn aright why and how that maker made him.4 But Sidney and the protheatricalists celebrate the bloodless “sweet violence”5 of an exemplary and embellished drama that moves the spectator to virtuous and prescribed behavior; Gosson argues not only that this same transaction can promulgate vice—both intentionally and unintentionally6—but also that it commits felonious violence against the object of representation itself. Far from a “glass of behavior,” Gosson's theater presents men as silent exteriors before a dangerously subjective audience, an inversion of the ideal courtroom: “For the place, no private man's life ought to be brought in question or accused, but where he may plead in his own defense and have indifferent judges to determine the case” (p. 163). Thus he approves of Roman theatrical censorship for restoring the judiciary to its rightful place: “[the Roman censors] would not have the life and behavior of the citizens, subject either to a poet's inkhorn, or a player's tongue, but to the seat of justice” (p. 165). In contrast to this fixed institution of judgment, he finds the Renaissance “common” stage an interpretively open-ended venue, where the inwardness of a “private man's life” becomes the property of a public both ductile and unpredictable.7 At its most penetrating, Gosson's criticism of drama reveals the violence of what we might call “other-fashioning”—the coercion involved when a playwright silences a subject, appropriates that subject as spectacle, and displays it before the dubious construction of numberless judges.

Ironically, we find the most unflinching response to this definition of theatrical violence not in the prose of Gosson's opponents, but in the very public drama he seeks to censor. In my reading of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, I claim that Shakespeare explores this same violence with acute self-consciousness; and that, more specifically, the dismemberment of Cinna the poet at the center of the dramatic action emblemizes the potentially ruinous energies of other-fashioning—focuses the anxieties about theatrical appropriation and audience response—that preside with thematic centrality over the play. Such a reading will involve an inversion of the paradigm typically imposed on the Renaissance stage when “self-fashioning” is the issue: rather than a cultural space that enables but ultimately contains a potentially subversive auto-poesis.8 I argue that Shakespeare represents in this play a stage subversive for its incontinence, a theater in which self-presentation dissolves before the alternative gaze and indeterminate interpretation of the spectator. Julius Caesar will have a doubled part in this essay, however. While I seek to demonstrate that in his play Shakespeare metatheatrically considers the relation—as conceived by the antitheatricalists—between the playwright, his matter, and his audience, I also attempt to historicize this self-consciousness, arguing that the play appears in a time (1599) and a place (the Globe) at which the nature of this relation is being energetically redefined and debated. This reading of Julius Caesar, then, tries to present the play as a dramatic reading of a contentious contemporary issue, a critical representation of the public theater's epistemological economy. For it is through this critique that Shakespeare defines both the dramatist and his customers as rough-handlers of the representations they fashion and watch; it is through this critique that Shakespeare considers public drama's potential for irresponsibility. In so doing, he defines the playwright as implicated in a process of which many apologists for theater would absolve him: guilty by association with an untrustworthy audience, a corrupt jury, Shakespeare's dramatist knowingly violates the subjects he stages.


It might be objected that Gosson's view of theater as mistrial arises merely from his concern with a topical stage's potential for libel, a concern in fact shared by the state censors in Renaissance England.9 But Gosson conceives the injury of theatrical misrepresentation much more broadly, so that even Roman history can be victimized by Elizabethan dramatic adaptations:

If a true history be taken in hand … the poets drive it most commonly unto such points, as may best show the majesty of their pen … or wring in a show, to furnish the stage, when it is too bare; when the matter of itself comes short of this, they follow the practice of the cobbler, and set their teeth to the leather to pull it out.

So was the history of Caesar and Pompey … when the history swelled, and ran too high for the number of the persons that should play it, the poet with Procrustes cut the same fit to his own measure; when it afforded no pomp at all, he brought it to the rack, to make it serve.

(Plays Confuted in Five Actions, pp. 168-69)

Sidney's alchemy, whereby the brazen world of nature and history becomes golden, is here described as a violent and opportunistic craft. For Gosson does not seem to share Sidney's view of the inutile specificity of history; nor does he justify poetic fiction as the conversion of mundane fact into neoplatonic Truth. Rather, Gosson's “true history” exists as a prior authenticity endangered by subsequent authors who take it “in hand” and “make it serve” their own artistic designs—by playwrights who falsify historical evidence and “wring in” shows in order to construct compelling theatrical cases.

Something of this rhetoric of coercive and manipulative representation distinguishes Shakespeare's own metadramatic reflections upon the act of staging history. In the Prologue to The Life of Henry the Fifth, for instance, the Chorus admits the difficulty of dramatizing epic, and concedes the impossibility if not the impropriety of “cram[ming]” the play's historical subject “Within this wooden O”; and as the audience, we become accomplices to this constrictive, farcical force when we are invited to “Suppose within the girdle of these walls / Are now confined two mighty monarchies.”10 While Shakespeare's “Chorus to this history” grapples with the presentational problem of daring “to bring forth / So great an object … On this unworthy scaffold,” however, it also introduces the interpretive consequences of treating an historical subject as a spectacular “object.” By invoking the audience's “imaginary forces,” this Chorus indicates that dramatist and spectator must collaborate in fashioning and evaluating the evidence before them, and implies that the ultimate meaning of dramatic representation resides in the subjective and constitutive response of the audience: “Linger your patience on, and we'll digest / Th' abuse of distance, force a play” (2.Chorus.31-32). If one subscribes to Gosson's dark view of the playwright and his “worst sort of” audience, moreover, this collaboration not only misrepresents “true history” through the dramatist's self-interested manipulation of the record, but also subjects the characters of that history to the equally suspect reception of spectators who—like an autonomous jury—follow their own ends in arriving at their verdict.

Julius Caesar dramatizes both sides of this exchange, demonstrating the potential violation of history and its subjects by theatrical representation and audience response. Replying skeptically to Casca's reading of the wonders and prodigies that herald the fifteenth of March, in fact, Cicero might be said to epigrammatize the open-ended process of other-fashioning: “Indeed it is a strange-disposed time. / But men may construe things after their fashion, / Clean from the purpose of the things themselves” (1.3.33-35). Primarily, of course, these lines warn against the inadvertent misprision central to tragedy—the defiance of augury, omens, and prophecy that generically signals Caesar's fall; the “hateful Error” that ruins Cassius, who dies having “misconstrued everything” (5.3.84). But in Shakespeare's history play Cicero's words resonate with a significance beyond the tragic myopia that can doom such interpreters. For the hermeneutic he describes—the subjective speculation and objectified spectacle that, for Gosson, corrupt the courtroom and reduce history to histrionics—also describes the theatrical mode by which men knowingly victimize others in Julius Caesar. Like the word “theater” itself (at once a place where one goes “to view” and a place where scenes are staged “to the view”), his verb “construe” blurs the distinction between the act of interpretation and the act of representation. Indeed, Cicero's insight becomes the conspirators' strategy as they construct their plot. Like the portents and soothsaying Caesar must ignore if this plot is to succeed, for instance, Calphurnia's dream has an internal validity and “purpose” that the conspirators must construe “after their fashion” if the show is to go on. Thus Decius claims that she has “all amiss interpreted” her vision (2.2.83), and he provides an alternative reading that effectively leads Caesar to his slaughter. Similarly, although Brutus regrets “That every like is not the same” (2.2.128), he realizes the republicans must represent Caesar as a simulacrum of himself in order to alienate him in the people's eyes. In a soliloquy that rehearses the apology for tyrannicide he will soon deliver to the plebeians, he admits the expediency of construing Caesar after his own fashion, clean from the purpose of the thing himself:

          And since the quarrel
Will bear no color for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus: that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities.


For Brutus, as for Gosson's violator of “true history,” “the matter of itself comes short”; and the solution to the troublesome limitations of fact threatening to impede his plot and obstruct his case lies in theatricalized fiction, in fashioning the audience's perspective on the scene he is to perform by altering the evidence and ascribing to Caesar a new telos. Refusing the passive role of Sidney's historian—a pedant “so tied not to what should be but to what is, to the particular truth of things and not to the general reason of things”11—Brutus instead plays the poet and forces the awkwardly sui generis Caesar into the generic catastrophe of the de casibus tradition. He forces a play by “wringing in” a show.

This scene, however, draws blood, and herein lies the play's specific self-consciousness: men die in Julius Caesar not only from accidental misreading, not only from accepting the intentional misreadings of others, but also—much more unusually—from being consciously misread. As we shall see, Cinna the poet, dismembered for his name by an audience that has become actors, falls as the superlative victim of this last category, the archetypal sacrifice of a “private man's life” to the mistrial of public theater. For Cicero's words apply as much to the plebeian audience of this theater as they do to those who attempt to control their perspective on the evidence put before them. If representations can be manipulated after the politicians' fashion, so can they be misconstrued by the people's reception; if men can be appropriated by the political theater, so can they become the property of those who observe them.

And if men can be subjected to this estranging process, so can “true history”; if Cicero's observation pertains to those who inhabit Shakespeare's play, it also pertains to the playwright himself. On this metadramatic level, in fact, Cicero's acknowledgment of the construction to which omens and prognostications are susceptible attains further significance and irony. For by the late sixteenth century, a great deal of skepticism had arisen in England over an illusionistic strategy that Julius Caesar, like many Renaissance history plays, employs dramaturgically: the temporal sleight of hand whereby history is given a compelling predictive force and narrative shape.12 The strong rhetoric with which such manipulations of omens and prophecy were attacked, moreover, suggestively resembles that of the antitheatricalists. Most shrill, perhaps, is Raphael Holinshed's condemnation of Peter of Pomfret, “a man in great reputation with the common people” whom Holinshed brands a “pseudo-prophet or false foreteller of afterclaps … a deluder of the people.”13 Francis Bacon likewise regrets that “the nature of Man … coveteth divination.” He approves of the “many severe laws made to suppress” such prophecies, “for they have done much mischief,” and he claims “that almost all of them, being infinite in number, have been impostures, and by idle and crafty brains, merely contrived and feigned, after the event passed.”14 Holinshed and Bacon object to these anachronistic predictions for much the same reason that Gosson objects to the dramatization of history: in facilitating the “emplotment”15 of history's chaos into an orderly story, they are the instruments of deceivers rather than decipherers.

There are obvious reasons for the author of Julius Caesar to consider his use of history so self-consciously. Shakespeare's principal source for the play—North's translation of Amyot's French version of a Latin translation of Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans—already suggests the transformation of historical fact by collaborative human manufacture; as Sidney remarks, moreover, this poeticizing of history began with the first chronicler: “And who reads Plutarch's either history or philosophy, shall find he trimmeth both their garments with guards of poetry.”16 Shakespeare fashions his play, then, from a text already read and fashioned, moralized and translated. Significantly, the short scene of Cinna's apprehension occasions a disproportionate degree of poetic departure from this text. Shakespeare chooses to specify that this Cinna is “the poet”; chooses to subject this poet to a crowd that, realizing he is not Cinna the conspirator, nevertheless kills him because “his name's Cinna”; and chooses to suggest that Cinna's offstage fate will be dismemberment. In contrast, only one of the two accounts of “the murther of Cinna” in North's Plutarch describes the victim, in passing, as “a Poet.” In this account, moreover, the crowd that kills Cinna genuinely confuses him with the conspirator, and tells us only that the plebeians “presently dispatched him” and “slue him outright.”17 In his first dramatic adaptation of a Plutarchan narrative the playwright thus freely alters his historical source.

Focusing on such authorial decisions, Gary Taylor has recently concluded the most extended discussion of Cinna's death with a judgment that would have pleased Gosson: “To tell the truth boldly, the more I think about Shakespeare's scene, the less I like it. It is wrong historically, it is wrong morally; it was wrong then, it is still wrong now.”18 Taylor does not, however, share Gosson's conception of the dramatist as an unabashed panderer to “the worst sort of people.” Instead he indicts Shakespeare for both exaggerating the historical rabble's indiscriminate violence in this scene and depicting an apolitical poet's victimization at their hands, thereby creating a false opposition “between poet and plebeians, between poet and conspirator” (p. 338). The playwright, charges Taylor, creates a defense of poetry at the expense of truth. If we accept this argument, then Cinna's murder by the mob in 3.3 involves a program—a program extending to the camp poet's encounter with Cassius and Brutus in 4.3—whereby Shakespeare erects a false distinction between the poetic and political spheres. Far from a self-conscious exploration of the potential violence of the public theater, the scene appears on this reading a façade of false consciousness, a nefarious attempt to deny art's implication in the chaotic social world around it.

Is this the case? Taylor marshals strong evidence for his assertion that Shakespeare goes out of his way to enhance the fickleness of the rabble in this play. In North's Plutarch, for example, the funeral orations that precede Cinna's murder are separated by a day, and the crowd is constant in its disapproval of Caesar's assassination.19 In Shakespeare's version, by contrast, the orations are juxtaposed, and “the popular voice” becomes a rhetorical barometer. Taylor also seems justified in arguing that the poets in this play conspicuously make nothing happen. Whereas in Plutarch it is a philosopher who intervenes in the quarrel between Brutus and Cassius, successfully reconciling them, in Shakespeare a poet enters after the reconciliation has already occurred, and his well-intended but untimely doggerel is subsequently ridiculed (4.2.187-91). But the distinction between the men of the word and the men of the world in Julius Caesar may not be as clear as this reading suggests. And if the nominal poets in this play seem to emphasize the division between art and politics, the politicians bridge this gulf in their representation as dramatists playing to an audience.

Taylor foists upon the author of Julius Caesar (1599) the conception of poetry expressed by the author of Venus and Adonis (1592-1593)—“a publicly intimate relationship between poet and patron” above history, ideology, and the vulgus.20 A skeptic might object, of course, that intimacy is always a fictive pose for poets operating in a print culture, and that by submitting their words to fame's court such poets consciously (if surreptitiously) offer them as public property.21 Whether or not this was Shakespeare's awareness when he composed his non-dramatic poetry for individual patrons, however, it must have become so in 1599, when a pirate divulged two of “his sugred Sonnets”—previously circulated only “among his priuate friends”—to the world.22 Thus by 1599, if not before, there was irony, intentional or imposed, in the patronage poet's occupatio, as in Sonnet 102: “That love is merchandized whose rich esteeming / The owner's tongue doth publish everywhere.” But the proto-romantic view of the poet Taylor ascribes to the author of Julius Caesar ignores more than the complex status of patronage poetry in the late sixteenth-century (and the significant body of recent criticism that has demonstrated this complexity).23 It also ignores Shakespeare's awareness of the altogether different socioeconomic mise en scène that produced the play itself. Indeed, Julius Caesar dramatizes the irrelevance and obsolescence of the very mode of poetry Taylor accuses Shakespeare of perpetuating under false pretenses.


Although poet remained both the popular and technical term for the play-wright during Shakespeare's lifetime,24 there are reasons both historical and textual to suppose that dramatists working in England's increasingly public theaters had occasion to reevaluate and revalue this term. As Elizabeth's court blurred the distinction between private courtship and public courtiership, so her elaborately theatricalized self-presentation erased the boundaries between stagecraft and statecraft. When political power can be dramatized, power itself devolves to a public where interpretive possibilities proliferate. On the Renaissance public stage, sovereign self-presentation is necessarily subjected to representation; the autonomous production of ideology (like selfhood) is rendered an object of the contingencies of reproduction. It was less theatrical self-assertion, therefore, than a complaint of theatrical vulnerability that underlay Elizabeth's remark to a deputation of Lords and Commons: “We princes are set upon stages in the sight and view of all the world.”25 Like Elizabeth, Hamlet realizes the danger of playing to the world. The collaborative social act of public theater, however, demands this economy, and Hamlet must finally submit to theatrical appropriation: “High on a stage … placed to the view”; reduced, like the court jester he has elegized, to a silent and portable synecdoche of the self; he becomes an erased mouth, a silence inviting spectators' glosses, the quietus ultimately required of the observed of all observers. For Hamlet and Elizabeth, the stage inexorably transforms the self into a passive spectacle fashioned for and by “the sight and view” of others.

In 1601 the Queen of England identified herself as the property of a public beyond her control: “I am Richard II. Know ye not that? … He that will forget God, will also forget his benefactors; this tragedy was played 40tie times in open streets and houses.”26 Stephen Greenblatt has observed that Elizabeth responds here to the potential for iteration and indeterminacy27 of a play construed after a subversive fashion, a play that seems to have broken the boundaries of its house and emerged into a world of limitless audience and multiple factions. To this we should add that her response is concomitant with a perceived disintegration of patronage assumptions (“He that will forget God, will also forget his benefactors”), and with her recognition that she has become a victim of other-fashioning. Whether referring to Shakespeare's play or to Hayward's tract, the anger and anxiety of Elizabeth's self-identification with Richard responds to the fact that it is an identification thrust upon her, an identification that threatens her identity. Like the commissioning viewer of an anamorphic painting, she looks to the story of Henry of Lancaster and Richard of Bordeaux for a familiar reflection of her self-image and finds instead—from another's perspective—a radically subversive alterity, a subrogated persona that troubles the semiotics of the whole composition.28

Two years before this dramatic alteration challenged Elizabeth's “Semper Eadem,” the Chamberlain's Men had completed a metaphoric transition—from The Theatre, through The Curtain, to The Globe—29 that seems appropriately responsive to a self-conscious shift, in England's public drama, from the aesthetically insulated to the politically fraught. It was on the Globe's stage, in 1599, that an actor playing the Chorus in Henry V anticipated a Caesar-like “general of our gracious Empress” returning triumphantly from Ireland (5.30-34); and it was earlier in this same year, many scholars agree, that Julius Caesar was first produced as the inaugural play in “this wooden O.”30 1599, the year the “newly built” Globe became “the possession of William Shakespeare and others,”31 would have been particularly unaccommodating for the vision of playwrighting “as a publicly intimate relationship between poet and patron.” For the preceding year, the Privy Council responded to the annual letter of complaint from the Lord Mayor and the Court of Aldermen with a resolution that was unprecedented: it declared that all public playhouses were to be “plucked down” due to the “lewd matters that are handled on the stages” and the “very great disorders” resulting from the “resort and confluence of bad people.” This order of the Privy Council (July 28, 1598), which might have given specific topical resonance to the antitheatrical and anti-congregational Tribunes in the first scene of Julius Caesar, was of course never executed, but it marked the beginning of an intense period of legislation against London's public theaters. To gain “possession” of the Globe near the end of the sixteenth century was to enter a theater of contest in which private enterprise and state power were frequently at odds.

Indeed, the Globe itself was constructed of contested property. On December 28, 1598, James and Richard Burbage, together with a master carpenter and a dozen tradesmen, dismantled the deserted Theatre and transported its valuable timber to the Bankside, where it was erected as the new home of the Chamberlain's Men. Giles Allen, the increasingly antitheatrical landlord of the Theatre who had requested the departure of his thespian tenants earlier that year, seems to have desired to “convert the wood and timber thereof to some better use.” In the subsequent lawsuit Allen's plaint is remarkable for its representation of the defendants as a mob run amok, threatening city and crown. The Burbages and their accessories, he charged,

then and there armed themselves with divers and many unlawful and offensive weapons, as, namely, swords, daggers, bills, axes, and such like, and so armed did then repair unto the said Theatre. And then and there, armed as aforesaid, in very riotous, outrageous, and forcible manner, and contrary to the laws of your Highness' realm, attempted to pull down the said Theatre, whereupon divers of your subjects, servants, and farmers, then going about in peaceable manner to procure them to desist from that their unlawful enterprise, they (the said riotous persons aforesaid) notwithstanding procured then therein with great violence, not only then and there forcibly and riotously resisting your subjects, servants, and farmers, but also then and there pulling, breaking, and throwing down the said Theatre in very outrageous, violent, and riotous sort, to the great disturbance and terrifying not only of your subjects, said servants, and farmers, but of diverse others of your Majesty's loving subjects there near inhabiting.32

It is tempting to compare this riotous representation to the plebeians, “moved”—by Antony's promise of a new recreational park “On this side Tiber,” fit for “common pleasures” (3.2.249-50)—to “Pluck down benches! Pluck down forms, windows, anything!” (3.2.258-59). Less conjecturally, we can observe that Allen's no doubt embellished account comes very near the energies that Shakespeare represents in the Globe's inaugural play. An intriguing insight into Shakespeare's complex response to this moment of artistic reassessment appears in Andrew Gurr's demonstration that, around the year 1600, he began to reconceive his customers as spectators rather than auditors.33 Some of the epistemological and political implications of this transformation appear most clearly when we consider the altogether different response of a rival playwright to this same period of change.

For Ben Jonson, the recurrent metaphor of the “Poetomachia” is that of the trial or arraignment, so that the warring dramatists present, in Tibullus' phrase, competing “Law-cases in verse.”34 But Jonson's problem, even as he goes about defining the role of the socially relevant public poet, lies in determining that court in which he wishes to appeal his case. In Poetaster (1601), for instance, he legitimizes his ideal, politically and morally salutary poets (Horace and Vergil), by banishing the socially marginal (Ovid), and by purging the civically deleterious (Crispinus and Fannius). Jonson's poetic ideal proves less than efficacious on the public stage, however, where cases are tried not in Augustus' court, but by a corrupt jury. Jonson sends “An armed Prologue” to defend his play from rooms filled with “base detractors, and illiterate apes”;35 and in his “apologeticall Dialogue,” addressing not a multitudinous spectatorship but an individual reader, he declares the world a “baud” and promises his next dramatic effort will seek a fit audience, however few: “Where, if I prove the pleasure but of one / So he judicious be; He shall b'alone / A Theatre unto me” (213-15). But in the public theater, such retreats into Stoic self-sufficiency are as impossible as imposing a fixed, textual meaning on a script intended for common consumption. In the Globe, to turn one's back on the world is inevitably to invite backstabbing. Thomas Dekker therefore prefaces his theatrical response to Jonson in terms perfectly pitched to elicit the latter's anxiety: “Horace hal'd his Poetasters to the barre, the Poetasters untruss'd Horace: how worthily eyther, or how wrongfully, (World) leave it to the jurie.”36 Before this jury, Dekker in Satiro-Mastix (1601) does with Horace much what the Essex party does with the story of Richard II in the same year: as a deposition scene appears subversive when placed in the contemporary political context, so does Horace look ridiculous when dropped “into the middle of a flamboyantly romantic tragi-comedy.”37 For Jonson, as for his Queen, the public theater submits one to an audience composed of both predatory rival playwrights and an injudicious tribunal.

Finding his case altered by 1603, then, Jonson replaces the Augustan court with the Tiberian to reflect the willful misreading and evidentiary misconstruction to which the public poet is vulnerable. In his dedicatory epistle to Lord Aubigny, he at once identifies Sejanus' reception with that of its dismembered “subject,” and seeks to appeal the Globe's unjust verdict to a single patron: “It is a poem that—if I well remember—in your Lordship's sight, suffered no less violence from our people here than the subject of it did from the rage of the people of Rome, but with a different fate, as (I hope) merit.”38 Here, perhaps, is a case for Taylor's criticism of the dramatist disingenuously posing as an apolitical creature victimized by a world he claims the right to ignore, a playwright for whom “our people here” are indeed “vulgar interlopers” mangling the intimate artistic utterance of a play that has silently become “a poem.”39 For the Jonson of 1603, theatrical values ultimately prove corrosive to his conception of artistic integrity; the Globe, engaged in a bacchanalia of epistemological and evaluative indiscrimination, must either consume the Orphic poet or exile him to a private, meritocratic world elsewhere. What would later in Jonson's dramatic career become an effort to prevent this indiscrimination by seeking a poetic audience, not a theatrical spectatorship,40 takes an early shape in his desire to place his literary evidence before homogeneous judges, not a heterogeneous jury. As late as 1611, in fact, he intermittently appeals to a higher evaluative court; his epistle to the Earl of Pembroke, published prefatorily to Catiline, reveals an attempt to convert drama into patronage poetry: “Now, it approcheth your censure cheerefully, and with the same assurance, that innocency would appeare before a magistrate.” Like Milton after him, Jonson inhabits a “solitude” threatened by “evil tongues,” a fragile kingdom of intentionality “with dangers compassed round,” and he seeks to define his hermeneutically “fit audience” by insulating it from “the barbarous dissonance” of those inimical to his poetic meaning.

But this defiant, embattled stance must not be confused with Shakespeare's in the same period. If any Shakespearean dramatic text seems to invite such confusion, it is Troilus and Cressida (1601-03?), with its appended preface addressing an “eternal” reader in an ideal act of literary communication independent of history, the staling stage, and “the palmes of the vulger.”41 More substantially, however, the play represents a self-conscious departure from Jonson's conception of the theater poet; it may even be Shakespeare's fullest acknowledgment that the public playwright is not an innocent victim of the interpretive energies of a place such as The Globe.

Troilus and Cressida's chiastic mock of Poetaster's “armed Prologue,” for instance, recognizes the permeability of authorial prophylactics against promiscuous interpretation. Rather than guarding his play from the audience's subjective misconstruction, Shakespeare's “prologue arm'd” (Prologue, 23) invites the audience to participate in this martial drama as autonomous, potentially combative judges: “Like or find fault, do as your pleasures are, / Now good or bad, 'tis but the chance of war” (30-31). If the preface contemptuously dismisses the clapper-clawing hands of the multitude, this prologue submits the play's reception to the multiple “pleasures” of a similarly arbitrary jury. And in his epilogue Pandarus suggests that all those who have participated in this sullying “performance” are not only infected by a venereal clap, but also equipped with a rapacious claw. The “traders in the flesh” (5.10.45) who fill “Pandar's hall” (47) figure a collaborative spectatorship that would hypocritically distance itself from the prurient and purveyant drama it has employed. In a rebuke that reminds us his name means nothing but “to go between,” however, Pandarus refuses his customers such a voyeuristic withdrawal:

O world, world, world! thus is the poor agent despis'd! O traders and bawds, how earnestly are you set a-work, and how ill requited! Why should our endeavor be so lov'd and the performance so loath'd?


Pandarus' diction here, if not his sense, is that of the antitheatricalist excoriation of a Babylonian stage endeavoring to satisfy a devouring world—a pandering playwright vending his diseased images to an easily infected audience in the “market of bawdrie.” His almost post-coital regret and eruptive self-aversion, in fact, seem to anticipate the contrition, as described in A Refutation of the Apology for Actors, of playgoers who “know the Histories before they see them acted [and] are very ashamed when they have heard what lyes the Players insert among them, and how greatly they deprave them.”42 Far from a defense of poetry, this epilogue incorporates the antitheatrical position in an unrepentant admission of dramatic guilt that finally indicts the audience as an accessory. To show, claims Pandarus, is to violate; to watch is to participate.

Such a conclusion is the caustic culmination of a play that metatheatrically considers its own role in the deflation and perversion of classical heroic characterology. The “strange fellow” whose argument Ulysses reiterates to lure Achilles to battle seems to articulate a benign version of this role when he claims that “[N]o man is the lord of any thing … Till he communicate his parts to others; / Nor doth he of himself know them for aught, / Till he behold them formed in th' applause / Where th' are extended” (3.3.115, 117-20). But James Calderwood's description of this communicative theory as involving “a generative intercourse between bearer and observer”43 plays down Shakespeare's emphasis on the degenerative potentiality of such intercourse. In a drama that itself refracts the epics of Homer and Vergil through several different “recuyells” of the histories of Troy,44 the fate of history and its subjects ultimately rests in the hands of the dramatist and his audience. Like Pandarus, the playwright can commodify the “parts” of historical subjects by assembling a textual pastiche for a predatory public; like Thersites, who is himself addresed as a “fragment,”45 the playgoer can reduce all such representations to scabrous objects through dissective evaluation. The same hands that manufacture constitutive applause can serve as claws of misconstruction. By dramatizing such a transaction and transformation, Troilus and Cressida explores the darker possibilities of a theater that defines the dramatist not as a victim but as a conspirator. We can trace this exploration back to the Globe's inaugural play.


Julius Caesar seems to know no other medium than the public stage, as critics have long demonstrated by pointing out its preference for the rhetorical mode over the lyrical, for public declamation and customary proverbs over private reflection and soliloquy.46 As Brutus responds when asked if one can ever properly know one's self: “No, Cassius, for the eye sees not itself / But by reflection, by some other thing” (1.2.52-53). Frequently, this “other thing” proves to be the speculum of theater itself. In a marketplace reeking of the commoners' breath, Caesar is clapped and hissed for his political dumbshow “according as he pleas'd and displeas'd” his plebeian audience, “as they use to do the players in the theatre” (1.3.259-61). Brutus urges his fellow conspirators to dissemble their purpose by bearing the staid countenance of “our Roman actors” (2.1.226). And Antony, the lover of plays who most successfully exploits political theater, drops a telling term as he urges Octavius to reevaluate Lepidus, the least consequential and most easily manipulated member of the triumvirate: “Do not talk of him / But as a property” (4.1.39-40). One of Julius Caesar's central dramas is the appropriation of the private by the public, the denotation of “that within which passeth show” by “actions that a man might play,” and the reduction of autonomous men to communicable parts and transferable stage properties. The play concedes the potential violence of this drama in the central, emblematic scene of Cinna's dismemberment. In Julius Caesar's earlier consumption of its eponym, however, the play suggests that such physical violence can serve as a metaphor for the injury of theatrical other-fashioning.

Shakespeare's later Roman tragedies pluck out the heart of mystery with the ceremony of sacrifice and the savage coolness of an anatomy.47 Cleopatra would prefer to be a “stark-nak'd” corpse rather than face her audience as a conscious property in the figurative dismemberment she imagines Octavius staging in his theatrical triumph, “pinion'd,” “hoist,” and displayed “to the shouting varlotry / Of censuring Rome.” She ruins her mortal house unwilling to witness the “Mechanic slaves” who will expose Antony and herself “to the view,” distorting their biographies through mannered theatricalism (5.2.49-62, 208-21). But while Cleopatra may resist theatrical appropriation by playing the Roman, the irony of this refuge is as inescapable as the theater that subsumes her. For the theater imagined in Shakespeare's Roman tragedies is populated by an intrusive public and exploitative actors; it tolerates no inscrutable inwardness, no self-sufficient independence from the theatrical economy; it sheds blood and breaks bodies to render the private public, to sacrifice individual subjectivity to theatrical viability and spectacle. Coriolanus may refuse to play to such a crowd, “turn[ing]” his “back” in a consummately antitheatrical gesture of introversion, standing instead “As if a man were author of himself,” seeking to be “every man himself” and “not … other than one thing.” But he is stabbed to death as the people shout “Tear him to pieces!”48 And what is the public theater but the people? What are these people but Gosson's Hydra-like “monster”? As a proleptic and definitive answer to such questions, Julius Caesar digests its subject (who has proclaimed “always I am Caesar” [1.2.212] with the same self-consciousness, the same ironic untenability, and perhaps the same anxiety toward protean theatricality that underlies Elizabeth's “Semper Eadem”) early in the third act, when the conspirators decide that Caesar must die to be seen. Brutus tries and condemns his friend not for what he is, but for what he might be, for the undetermined and undisclosed subjunctive mood of his spirit:

He would be crown'd
How that might change his nature, there's the question.


O that we then could come by Caesar's spirit,
And not dismember Caesar! But, alas,
Caesar must bleed for it!


Caesar must bleed because the conspiracy of Caesar can have no unscrutinized spirits. Caesar must bleed because the conspirators—no less than the plebeians who come to his funeral shouting “We will be satisfied! Let us be satisfied! (3.2.1)—wish to see his body opened before them like a text. Caesar must bleed for a theater whose liturgy is haruspication,49 whose medium is synecdoche, and whose privileged jury is invariably comprised of multiple observers of a silenced object.

The constituents of this jury, however, proliferate wildly the moment the courtroom is confused with theater, the moment the accused is converted into evidentiary spectacle. A number of critics have demonstrated that Caesar's death coincides with his historicization and textualization.50 His famous (paene) ultima verba, in fact, seem to function antithetically to the infamous anachronism that strikes in 2.1: as Sigurd Burckhardt has argued, the clock that punctuates the conspirators' plot resonates with the timelessness and interpretive indeterminacy of their action.51 In an English stage-play, however, Caesar's marmoreal Latin appears to italicize the difference of history and its distance from the drama that relates it. Yet his last words are themselves the product of theatrical appropriation: although they live in the popular memory in Shakespeare's translation, they were originally delivered in Greek.52 Caesar may die in his native tongue, but his speech is rendered alien by his maker. It is a fundamental irony of Julius Caesar that its most self-conscious presentation of the autonomous past of history proves inextricably bound to the eternal present of dramatic reenactment and reinterpretation.

While Caesar's blood is still warm, this metadramatic irony operates at the conspirators' expense as they celebrate the conclusion of their case and their authorship of a history play:

Cassius: Stoop then, and wash. How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown.
Brutus: How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport;
That now on Pompey's basis lies along
No worthier than the dust!


Cassius and Brutus assert the historical primacy of their action while anticipating the future stage history of this “lofty scene.” They attempt to distinguish between a gory event and its aestheticized dramatization as “sport.” But in Julius Caesar history is conceived a priori in theatrical terms, by actors who recognize its perspectival malleability. It is Brutus' presumed dramatic control over the action and evaluation of the history in which he participates that signals his hybris. Just as Brutus seeks to mold Caesar into a figure of deservingly punished pleonexia, for instance, so does he attempt to direct the roles of his fellow conspirators. Calling for Caius Ligarius, he prepares to convert a man with undetermined political allegiances into a character with an unambiguous part to play: “Send him but hither, and I'll fashion him” (2.1.220). And after assuming direction of an assassination rehearsed in “Pompey's Theatre” (1.3.152), Brutus insists on the conspirators' billing as sacrificers, not butchers, as purgers, not murderers. Julius Caesar, however, proves to be beyond Brutus' management; and his reversal from conspirator to conspired against coincides with the deposition of his self-presentation and an authorial usurpation of the play for which it was intended. Restaging the scene of tyrannicide around the property of Caesar's corpse, Antony in 3.2 assigns to the conspirators the very parts they had eschewed. Cassius and Brutus condemn themselves when they draw a false distinction between bloody history and bloodless drama, declaring the case closed while the jury is still out, and abandoning the public stage to Antony's constructions. Having reduced Caesar's body to a text with wounds that gape “like dumb mouths” (3.1.260), they forget the instability of this text. They fail to recognize that the ambiguous body of the condemned “may signify equally well the truth of the crime or the error of the judges, the goodness or evil of the criminal.”53 Thus, like their victim, the conspirators become objects of other-fashioning.

Shakespeare reveals his awareness that his own plotting of history is subject to the same interpretive energies it employs. Critics such as Taylor would deny this consciousness of contingency, reading Shakespeare's public drama as the literary “work” of an entrenched patronage poet rather than the “play” of an author willingly de-centered by the common theater.54 An instructive corrective to this anachronism, however, appears in Samuel Johnson's editorial complaint:

But of the works of Shakespeare the condition has been far different [from that of works published under the direct supervision of their authors]: he sold them, not to be printed, but to be played. They were immediately copied for the actors, and multiplied by transcript, vitiated by the blunders of the penmen, or changed by the affectation of the player; perhaps enlarged to introduce a jest, or mutilated to shorten the representation; and printed at last without the concurrence of the author, without the consent of the proprietor, from compilations made by chance or by stealth out of the separate parts written for the theatre.55

The original “condition” of Shakespeare's dramatic texts resembles Gosson's description of history adapted to the theater, a description that applies equally well to Caesar's body: “mutilated” as occasion demands; deconstructed into, and reconstituted from, the “separate parts” of different participatory perspectives; they exist less as intrinsic meaning than as material to be recreated in performance.

If this metaphor of a corporeal text subject to the unkindest cuts of all implies a distinction between victimhood and aggression, it is clear that Shakespeare identifies with the latter. To insist like a Jonsonian prologue upon a fixed, hermeneutically determined textualism is almost invariably to be a victim or a fool on Shakespeare's stage. Calling for a judgment consonant with his inflexible reading of a bond he has authored, Shylock becomes a victim of alternative interpretations; fashioning himself in a letter that seems to reflect the greatness of his own self-image, Malvolio becomes a “propertied” fool when he realizes his ridiculous part and cross-gartered fashion have been assigned by unseen witnesses.56 Nobody's fool and never a self-proclaimed victim outside of the sonnets, Shakespeare recognizes the terms of the theatrical economy in which he operates. While the theater is open, no case is closed; when the jury is “the common eyes,” a moment can transform plaintiff into defendant, text into pretext, the carefully wrought self into an appropriated other; when the price of admission buys the audience something as insubstantial as a play, the theater compensates by procuring all that it represents as the interpretive property of this audience.

There is evidence suggesting the special inevitability of this economy for the Renaissance author of Julius Caesar. By imagining “states unborn” and “accents yet unknown,” Cassius prophesies the linguistic and cultural differences Shakespeare encounters as he recovers this “lofty scene” from history; simultaneously, then, this play looks back to an anterior future when the English state and language were “yet unknown” and forward to a present when those restaging the scene might have “Small Latine and Lesse Greek,” a time when Cicero's linguistic inaccessibility to Casca might reflect Plutarch's to Shakespeare: it was Greek to both of them. But like the playwright's history, Cassius' prophecy is construed after a dramatic fashion: on a level we have already considered, this prophecy becomes for Shakespeare an opportunity for dramatic irony. We know what for Casca is tragically “unknown” and “unborn”—that the conspirators' “lofty scene” will be first “acted over” by Antony's accent, and that the play will conclude with the conspirators' deaths and the birth of the Second Triumvirate. From Shakespeare's literary and historical moment, however, the irony goes further. For by the end of the sixteenth century, Cassius' and Brutus' first performance had long been the stock of artists and the debated exemplum of moralists and political theorists, receiving different “accents” or evaluative emphases as monarchy and republic, tyrants and traitors, were viewed from different perspectives.57 For a playwright capable of imagining an audience of “eyes not yet created,”58 though, the shortest path to obsolescence and revisionary victimization is to deny the contingency of such emphasis upon the historical moment, to assume a unanimous and monological interpretive community, and to forget that his play is the property of the very history it represents—that his text (before the posthumous First Folio) has no status, only unforeseen “states.” The political ambiguity of Julius Caesar is therefore the design of a survivor, not a victim. With Aufidius, Shakespeare acknowledges a truth fatally denied by Coriolanus: that in both history plays and history, “virtues / Lie in th' interpretation of the time” (4.7.49-50). Accordingly, if Julius Caesar has a central reference point, it is an audience at once constitutive and prone to metamorphosis.

The plebeians who comprise this audience, however, also embody the misconstructive jury, the bacchanalian rout, posited by the antitheatricalists in their indictment of the public stage as a courtroom travestied. In the central scene of Cinna's apprehension by this audience Shakespeare seems to concede many of the terms of the antitheatrical position as he looks critically at the economy in which he is implicated. This scene presents a mock treason trial, made disturbingly absurd by the fact that the accused withholds no interior allegiances to be revealed. If Caesar represented for the conspirators a mysterious “serpent's egg” of potentiality (2.1.32), Cinna discloses his innocence in direct, brief, wise, and true replies to his interrogators. The plebeians' response is to collapse the distinction between body and spirit that Brutus himself honored in the breach his dagger made; and the result is a savage farce, a brutal simplification of the theatrical appropriation that pervades the play.

As Cinna speaks his last vain words, he becomes what the plebeians wish him to be, a silent stage property to be fashioned as an insistent audience likes it:

Cinna: I am not Cinna the conspirator.
4. Plebeian: It is no matter, his name's Cinna. Pluck but his name out of his heart, and turn him going.
3. Plebeian: Tear him, tear him!
                    Exeunt all the Plebeians dragging off Cinna.


We might follow Taylor's “Bardicide” in reading this passage as a self-conscious reference to Orpheus' dismemberment (pp. 334-38). But we must make a crucial distinction between Shakespeare's apparent allusion to the archetypal poet-victim here and the similarly oblique suggestion of Orpheus' fate we have seen in Jonson's dedication to Sejanus. Unlike Jonson, Shakespeare does not represent this figure—and the violence inflicted upon him by “the rage of the people of Rome”—in a moment of injured self-identification. Rather, Shakespeare seems to conjure the specter of Orpheus' sparagmos to demonstrate the fate of a kind of poet, a kind of voice, when subjected to the abattoir of public theater. Such a generic application, in fact, had precedent in the Renaissance: “the euhemeristic reading of the Orpheus myth as the displacement of Greek lyric poetry by Dionysiac ritual drama” might, for instance, have presented itself to the playwright in Golding's Ovid.59 If Cinna serves as a figure for Orpheus, moreover, then we have in Julius Caesar an important early example of what Kenneth Gros Louis has described as a seventeenth-century poetic and iconographic development: the shift from representations of Orpheus triumphant to representations of Orpheus dismembered, reflecting an emergent skepticism toward poetry's ability to communicate clearly and to achieve its desired humanistic effects on its audience.60 In the world of Julius Caesar, at any rate, to treat the nominal poets as Shakespeare's self-representations is to confuse the purpose of the play's conscious differentiation between victims and victimizers, between an obsolescent mode of poetic subjectivity and the drama that consumes it. Far from an insidious defense of drama's innocence and inconsequence, Julius Caesar enacts a farsighted, metatheatrical critique of the dramatist and his diverse clientele.

Cinna is no more Shakespeare than is the officious camp poet dismissed later in the play for his inutility and for his decidedly unheroic couplet:

Poet: For shame, you generals! what do you mean?
Love, and be friends, as two such men should be,
For I have seen more years, I'm sure, than ye.
Cassius: Ha, ha! how vildly does this cynic rhyme!
Brutus: Get you hence, sirrah; saucy fellow, hence!
Cassius: Bear with him, Brutus, 'tis his fashion.
Brutus: I'll know his humor, when he knows his time.
What should the wars do with these jigging fools?
Companion, hence!


Like Cinna, although by verbal rather than physical violence, this poet is removed from the stage because he is an anachronism, a “fashion” in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nearly ten years before Julius Caesar first appeared, Christopher Marlowe had introduced a revolutionary play with a prologue defining his theater in negative terms remarkably similar to Brutus':

From jigging veins of rhyming mother wits,
And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay,
We'll lead you to the stately tent of war,
Where you shall hear the Scythian Tamburlaine
Threatening the world with his high astounding terms,
And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword.
View but his picture in this tragic glass,
And then applaud his fortunes as you please.(61)

For Shakespeare as for Marlowe, “the stately tent of war” offers little shelter for poets who do not know their time, exposing them instead to ridicule and to the ruinous energies of a theater that has overtaken them. For Shakespeare as for Marlowe, moreover, the “tragic glass” of this public theater confines mighty men in little room, represents historical figures through dramatic spectacle, and proffers this dramatized exterior to an uncertain reception. In such an economy, authorial intention can claim no more control over a text's consequences than Antony claims over the people he has “moved” through a carefully staged scene:

Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot,
Take thou what course thou wilt!


In such an economy, a text's consequentiality consists in part of this predictability.


Significantly, every act of writing in Julius Caesar draws blood. In the broadsheets Cassius writes “in several hands,” “wherein obscurely Caesar's ambition shall be glanced at” (1.2.316, 319-20); in the anonymous notes Cinna the conspirator throws in Brutus' way (1.3.145); and in the proscription list on which Antony damns lives with spots of ink (4.1.6), the injury textually inflicted seems to correspond with the author's intention. And yet the conspirators, as we have seen, involuntarily involve themselves in their own plot the moment they script it and declare it finished. Antony in turn loses sole authorship of his counterplot as it becomes the collaborative product of the other triumvirs. Having judged the proscription list complete, he is forced by Octavius to add the name of Lepidus' brother, a revision Lepidus makes contingent upon the inclusion of Antony's nephew. Similarly, once a text is composed in this play, it is subject to politicized readings beyond the author's control, and of this pervasive process the poet's death once again provides a central, emblematic image. Culminating a scene in which he amplifies the plebeians' outrage by gradually undressing Caesar's torn corpse, Antony publicly reads the dead man's will as a last incitement to riot (3.2.240-52). Just two scenes later, however, Caesar's will is figuratively dismembered as Antony determines “How to cut off some charge in legacies” (4.1.9). The intervening scene of Cinna's murder presents the literal dismemberment of an author whose will counts for nothing and whose audience chooses to misread him. In this scene Shakespeare schematizes the fate of all communication in the play. When the audience is both mobile and prone to action, when spectators become collaborators, when the jury arrogates the dual privilege of constituting meaning and executing its sentence, a speech-act's illocutionary intention dissolves into its perlocutionary effect. From the vantage point of 1601, such an awareness can only appear prophetic, for two years earlier Shakespeare claims for his drama the dangerous power to bestow an Exton on the world to make many Extons.62

But what justification have we for treating Julius Caesar's plebeians as an unflattering, unmitigated representation of the Globe audience's potential? To what extent is Shakespeare's metadramatic antitheatricalism contained by Rome and the play that concerns it? A limited answer lies in recognizing the diachronic transformation of the crowd in Julius Caesar. The plebeians who make their final exit bearing Cinna at the end of Act 3 first took the stage preparing for Caesar's triumph at the beginning of Act 1 and we must include the facts of this metamorphosis in our assessment of Shakespeare's representation of the audience in this play. Instead of a pack of marauding plebeians pursuing a poet, we find in 1.1 “certain commoners” (s.d.) set upon by inquisitorial tribunes; instead of an indistinct rabble seeking blood we find a remarkably individuated cobbler able to pun with the best of Shakespeare's English tradesmen. The line distinguishing sixteenth-century England and ancient Rome in Julius Caesar is never more blurred than in this scene. The Tribunes alternately seem like London aldermen policing sumptuary laws and Puritan antitheatricalists censuring the license, social confusion, and spectacle of the public theater: Flavius and Murellus chastise the keepers of this shoemaker's holiday for doffing “the sign” of their profession and donning their “best attire” (4, 48); and having dispersed the crowd, they set out to “Disrobe the images” decked with Caesar's “ceremonies” (64-65). The “certain Commoners” who cross the stage in 1.1 would appear to have no more objectionable motive than the desire for spectacle, the wish “to see Caesar and rejoice in his triumph” (31). And yet the Tribunes' antitheatrical anxiety in this scene is justified (and, significantly, left unchallenged by a play that does not make them the conventional object of protheatrical satire). Not only do the masquerading commoners range about the liberties dislocated from their social station; they are also interpretive individuals, each capable of construing the meaning of words after his fashion, as the cobbler's relentless punning reveals. When the vulgar can divest themselves of their social signifiers, when the vernacular can be invested with paronomasial significance, the theatrical audience acquires interpretive agency and the theater itself thereby becomes epistemologically open-ended and politically consequential. In 1.1 the plebeians enter as political innocents, and Murellus reproves them for failing to realize that the triumph they yearn to watch “comes … over Pompey's blood” (51). In 3.3 the plebeians exit bloodied with the experience of political theater, having demonstrated that to watch in this play is also to act. While in 1.1 they observe a social carnival, in 3.3 they effect political carnage. In 1.1, the cobbler's playfulness with language, his witty misreading of the Tribunes' sense, appears innocuous, whereas in 3.3, the fourth plebeian's wordplay is fatal, his misreading of Cinna a literal pun that tears name from thing. In 1.1, finally, Shakespeare's audience might have recognized itself in the protheatrical image of a harmless, recreational spectatorship; in 3.3 this audience would have seen itself transformed into (or revealed as?) the misconstruing miscreation that elicited Roman theatrical censorship.

Such is the plebeians' metamorphosis from “stones” (1.1.36) to “men” (3.2.142),63 from theatrical naïfs to initiates in the political theater. Like all metamorphoses, it involves less a break than a continuum: the difference between culling out a holiday and killing a man depends only on the degree of the spectators' participation. And like many initiations, it involves a ceremonial rite. If Caesar dies at the hands of republican fellow players unwilling to cede the theater to a single monarchical actor, Cinna dies as a sacrifice to an audience that has taken the stage. It may seem strange for Shakespeare to inaugurate his Globe in these terms, to baptize his audience with the blood of a poet, to figure its interpretive autonomy in a literal act of dismemberment. But dismemberment is his metaphor when, less than a year after Julius Caesar's first performance, he invokes his audience's imaginative collaboration in Henry V: “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts; / Into a thousand parts divide one man” (Prol. 24-25). In the theater of the world every character is subject to synecdochic reading, every act and representation imperfect and unfinished, every text submitted to the cutting room, the deceptively “little room” where spectators, no less than actors, conspire to “force a play.” It is as an emblem of this theater's censurable energies and properties that Cinna is dragged offstage.64


  1. Rowland Whyte, describing the interpretive frenzy provoked by a device displayed by Essex at an entertainment for the Queen in 1595, in Letters and Memorials of State … Written and Collected by Sir Henry Sidney, Sir Philip Sidney, Robert Earl of Leicester, and Viscount Lisle, ed. Arthur Collins (1746), 1:362.

  2. Stephen Gosson, Playes Confuted in Five Actions (1582), sig. C8v. All references to Gosson's works in this essay appear in Arthur F. Kinney's edition (Markets of Bawdrie: The Dramatic Criticism of Stephen Gosson [Salzburg, 1974]). I have modernized the spelling but retained the punctuation of this edition. Unless otherwise noted, all references to Gosson appear in Playes Confuted in Five Actions.

  3. Thomas Heywood, An Apology for Actors, ed. Arthur Freeman (New York and London, 1973), sig. B4.

  4. Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry, in Prose Works, ed. Albert Feuillerat (Cambridge, Eng., 1963), p. 12 (my italics).

  5. An Apology for Poetry, p. 24.

  6. See Playes Confuted in Five Actions, p. 161.

  7. Gosson specifically objected to the recent arrival of the public stage, noting that even “modest” and “good” plays are “not fit for every man's diet: neither ought they commonly to be shown” (The Schoole of Abuse, p. 97).

  8. A (now besieged) formulation of Michel Foucault's subversion-containment model appearing most influentially in Stephen Greenblatt's Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley, 1988), esp. pp. 21-65.

  9. For an excellent discussion of the state's attempts to control topical references on the Renaissance stage, see Paul Yachnin, “The Powerless Theater,” English Literary Renaissance, 21.1 (Winter, 1991), 49-74.

  10. The Life of Henry the Fifth, Pro., 12, 19-20. References are to The Riverside Shakespeare, gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston, 1974).

  11. An Apology for Poetry, p. 45.

  12. See Marjorie Garber, “‘What's Past Is Prologue’: Temporality and Prophecy in Shakespeare's History Plays,” in Renaissance Genres, ed. Barbara Kiefer Lewalski (Cambridge, 1986), pp. 301-31. See also Sharon L. Jansen Jaech, “Political Prophecy and Macbeth's ‘Sweet Bodements,’” Shakespeare Quarterly, 34 (1983), esp. p. 291.

  13. Shakespeare's Holinshed, ed. Richard Hosley (New York, 1968), p. 48 (Chronicles, 1587 ed., p. 180).

  14. Francis Bacon, “Of Prophecies,” in Essays, ed. Edwin A. Abbott, 2 vols. (London, 1881), 2:20-21.

  15. Following Garber (p. 311, n. 15), I borrow this term from Hayden White's Metahistory (Baltimore, 1973), pp. 6-7.

  16. An Apology for Poetry, p. 68. Plutarch himself refused the title of “historian,” choosing instead to relate and evaluate the “lives” and “minds” of his subjects.

  17. Plutarch's Liues of the Noble Grecians and Romans, trans. Sir Thomas North (1579), intro. George Wyndham, 6 vols. (New York, 1967), 6:69-70, 201.

  18. Gary Taylor, “Bardicide,” in Shakespeare and Cultural Traditions: The Selected Proceedings of the International Shakespeare Association World Congress, Tokyo, 1991, ed. Tetsuo Kishi, Roger Pringle, and Stanley Wells (Newark, Del., 1991), p. 343. We must dismiss as specious Taylor's assertion that the scene also presents “a theatrically impossible dismemberment” (p. 334). The stage directions indicate Cinna is to be dragged offstage for his fate. Moreover, false limbs for such scenes appear in the few extant lists of Elizabethan stage properties, and the illusion of onstage dismemberment seems not to have been impossible in such plays as Doctor Faustus and Titus Andronicus (see Philip Henslowe's inventory of March, 1598, in C. Walter Hodges, The Globe Restored [New York, 1953], pp. 71-72. On pp. 73-74, Hodges demonstrates Elizabethan “stage machinery to produce the illusion of a beheading”).

  19. See North's Plutarch, 6:15. In The Life of Brutus no mention is made of Brutus' oration; in The Life of Caesar no mention made of Antony's.

  20. Such is at least the ostensible authorial stance in Venus and Adonis, the epigram of which exhorts, “Vilia miretur vulgus: mihi flavus Apollo / Pocula Castalia plena ministret aqua” (from Ovid's Amores, 1.15.35-36). The subsequent dedicatory epistle to Henry Wriothesley also distinguishes between the unimportant censure of “the world” and the all-important pleasure of Shakespeare's patron.

  21. Arthur F. Marotti remains one of the more vocal proponents of this view. See his “Patronage, Poetry, and Print,” Yearbook of English Studies, 21 (1991), pp. 1-26; and his “Shakespeare's Sonnets as Literary Property,” in Soliciting Interpretation: Literary Theory and Seventeenth-Century English Poetry, ed. Elizabeth D. Harvey and Katharine Eisaman Maus (Chicago, 1990), pp. 143-73.

  22. Francis Meres, Palladis Tamia, Wits Treasury (1598), ed. D. C. Allen (Urbana, 1933), p. 283. William Jaggard printed the two sonnets (138 and 144) in The Passionate Pilgrim (1599).

  23. In “The Politics of Astrophil and Stella,” Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass reveal that the distinction between literary courtship and public courtiership was often blurred in late sixteenth-century England's “publicly intimate” poetry (Studies in English Literature, 24.1 [Winter, 1984], 53-68). For further demonstrations of the difficulty of maintaining privacy in the Elizabethan and Jacobean patronage systems, see Annabel M. Patterson, Censorship and Interpretation: the Conditions of Writing and Reading in Early Modern England (Madison, 1984); and David Norbrook, Poetry and Politics in the English Renaissance (London and Boston, 1984), esp. pp. 109-56, 195-234.

  24. Taylor observes this fact only to conflate what I am suggesting are the increasingly divergent roles of the patronage poet and the “theatre-poet” in late sixteenth-century England (“Bardicide,” p. 345 n.8).

  25. Quoted in J. E. Neale, Elizabeth I and her Parliaments, 1584-1601, 2 vols. (London, 1965), 2:119.

  26. The Queen's comments were recorded by William Lambarde. See the Arden edition of Shakespeare's King Richard II, ed. Peter Ure (Cambridge, 1956), pp. lvii-lxii.

  27. The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance, ed. Stephen Greenblatt (Norman, Ok., 1982), p. 3.

  28. In one of the best recent readings of Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors, Charles Harrison describes its anamorphic effect as an intrusion of historicity upon essentiality: “the carefully achieved illusion of its instantaneity, its ‘presentness,’ damaged beyond repair by the representation of its contingency” (“On the Surface of Painting,” Critical Inquiry, 15:2 [Winter, 1989], 324).

  29. Between 1597 and 1599 the Chamberlain's Men probably performed at The Curtain while The Theatre at Shoreditch was being razed and its timber used to build The Globe at Bankside. See Glynne Wickham, Early English Stages, 1300-1660, 2 vols. (Oxford 1972).

  30. See Gary Taylor, “Canon and Chronology,” in William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion (Oxford, 1987), p. 121; and Julius Caesar, in The New Cambridge Shakespeare, ed. Marvin Spevack (Cambridge, Eng., 1988), pp. 1-5.

  31. From the postmortem inventory of Sir Thomas Brend (May 16, 1599). Cited by S. Schoenbaum, Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life (Oxford, 1977), p. 209.

  32. This and the preceding quotation of Allen appear in C. W. Wallace, The First London Theatre: Materials for a History (Lincoln, 1913), pp. 278-79.

  33. Andrew Gurr, Playgoing in Shakespeare's London (Cambridge, Eng., 1987), p. 93.

  34. Poetaster, 1.3.7. Citations are to Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford, Percy and Evelyn Simpson, 11 vols. (Oxford, 1925-1952).

  35. Poetaster, “The Third Sounding,” 6, 9. Like other playwrights in the War of the Theaters, Jonson imagines an audience that includes antagonistic playwrights and actors bent upon adulterating his text (see “The Third Sounding,” 18-20, and Envy's speech, “After the Second Sounding”). John Michael Archer has shown that “the paranoid construction of Jonsonian authorship” was also a response to his fear of spies among his own actors and audience (Sovereignty and Intelligence: Spying and Court Culture in the English Renaissance [Stanford, 1993], pp. 94-120). One effect of the theatrical war, then, is to literalize the subjective and deliberately misconstruing audience—the audience-turned-actors—that I argue is a source of concern in Julius Caesar.

  36. Thomas Dekker, Satiro-Mastix, ed. Josiah H. Penniman (Boston and London, 1962), “To the World,” 15-17.

  37. Katharine Maus, Ben Jonson and The Roman Frame of Mind (Princeton, 1984), p. 92.

  38. Jonson, “To The No Less Noble, By Virtue Than Blood: Esme, Lord Aubigny,” 7-10.

  39. Sejanus provides many targets for Taylor's program of exposure. The indictment of Cremutius Cordus in Act 3, for instance, presents an untenable claim for the disinterestedness of historiography, a disingenuous denial of contemporary relevance, in a history play judged treasonously topical by the Privy Council in 1603.

  40. For Jonson's fully articulated desire for a “blind audience,” see the Prologue to The Staple of News. For a discussion of the antagonism between spectacle and word that developed with some continuity throughout Jonson's career, see D. J. Gordon, “Poet and Architect: The Intellectual Setting of the Quarrel Between Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones,” in The Renaissance Imagination, ed. Stephen Orgel (Berkeley 1975), pp. 77-101.

  41. Just as the play's genre is an early topic of debate, so its earliest stage history is contested by the 1609 preface, which advertises Troilus and Cressida as “a new play, neuer stal'd with the stage, neuer clapper-clawd with the palmes of the vulger”; by the Stationers' Register, which records its existence in February, 1603; and by the quarto title-page (first state), which advertises the play “As it was acted by the Kings Maiesties seruants at the Globe.”

  42. A Refutation of the Apology for Actors, by I. G. (1605). Quoted in Herschel Baker, The Race of Time: Three Lectures on Renaissance Historiography (Toronto, 1967), p. 80. For similar statements, see The Schoole of Abuse, pp. 92-93, and Playes Confuted in Five Actions, pp. 194-95.

  43. James L. Calderwood, Shakespearean Metadrama (Minneapolis, 1971), p. 136. See also his “Appalling Property in Othello,University of Toronto Quarterly, 57:3 (Spring, 1988), 357.

  44. William Caxton's Recuyell of the Histories of Troye was just one of Shakespeare's available sources. See also Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London, 1966), 6:83-111.

  45. Carol Cook considers this same issue, though from a Lacanian perspective, in “Unbodied Figures of Desire,” Theatre Journal, 38 (March, 1986), 44-46.

  46. See esp. Paul Cantor, Shakespeare's Rome: Republic and Empire (Ithaca, 1974), pp. 108-10.

  47. A similar claim has been made for the earlier Titus Andronicus (1593-1594), in which rape and dismemberment render Lavinia's body an annotated text, a silent emblem submitted to others' reconstructive reading. See Douglas E. Green, “Interpreting ‘her martyr'd signs’: Gender and Tragedy in Titus Andronicus,Shakespeare Quarterly, 40 (1989), 317-26.

  48. Coriolanus, 3.3.134; 5.3.36; 4.7.42; 5.6.120; 5.2.65-66. Earlier Coriolanus seems to recognize that it is death that submits one to other-fashioning, life that grants the temporary privilege of maintaining one's self-conception: “While I remain above the ground you shall / Hear from me still, and never of me aught / But what is like me formerly” (4.1.51-53).

  49. David Kaula has found a pattern of eucharistic allusions in the ritual attending Caesar's murder in “‘Let Us Be Sacrificers’: Religious Motifs in Julius Caesar,Shakespeare Studies, 14 (1981), 197-214.

  50. See Mark Rose, “Conjuring Caesar: Ceremony, History, and Authority in 1599,” in True Rites and Maimed Rites: Ritual and Anti-Ritual in Shakespeare and His Age, ed. Linda Woodbridge and Edward Berry (Urbana and Chicago, 1992), p. 264.

  51. Sigurd Burckhardt, Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton, 1968), pp. 3-21.

  52. See Richard Macksey, “Last Words: The Artes Moriendi and a Transtextual Genre,” Genre, 16 (Winter, 1983), 508. “Et tu Brute?” appears to have been a not uncommon theatrical tag before Shakespeare's play, and in Every Man Out of His Humour (5.6.79) Jonson would parody it as a cliché.

  53. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York, 1979), p. 46.

  54. See Alvin Kernan's Shakespeare, The King's Playwright in the Stuart Court, 1603-1613 (New Haven, 1995). While Kernan demonstrates aspects of the patronage system in Shakespeare's Stuart drama, his case seems to me overstated and to ignore some of the performative issues considered here.

  55. Samuel Johnson, Johnson on Shakespeare, in The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, ed. Arthur Sherbo (New Haven, 1968), 7:51-52. Alexander Pope also speaks of Shakespeare's original manuscripts being “cut” and “divided” into the “Piecemeal Parts” of the “Prompter's Book” (“Preface to ‘The Works of Shakespear’,” in Eighteenth-Century Essays on Shakespeare, ed. D. Nichol Smith [Oxford, 1963], p. 54).

  56. See Twelfth Night, 4.2.89. Like Shylock, Malvolio leaves his play less assimilated than “propertied” by the comedy's reestablished social order. Such coercion certainly appears elsewhere in Shakespeare's comedies and romances; but the appropriation of individuals as stage spectacle—as James Calderwood has argued—is essentially a tragic device, a problematic ethos that comedy and romance must finally transcend or absorb. See his “Appalling Property in Othello,” pp. 353-75.

  57. One need only consider the different assessments of Caesar's death in Plutarch, Appian, Dante, Michelangelo, Fulbecke, Sidney, and Milton for a sense of its interpretive possibilities. For a history of political interpretations of Julius Caesar, see John Ripley, “Julius Caesaron Stage in England and America, 1599-1973 (Cambridge, Eng., 1980).

  58. Sonnet 81, line 10. In the case of Julius Caesar, Shakespeare's prophecy of literary survival was especially appropriate: the committee established to erect his monument in Westminster Abbey initiated this canonization with a commissioned performance of the play at Drury Lane, April 28, 1738 (see David Piper, The Image of the Poet: British Poets and their Portraits [Oxford, 1982], pp. 78-82).

  59. James Calderwood comes very close to ascribing such a reading to Shakespeare elsewhere, arguing that in Titus Andronicus Shakespeare explores a tension between lyric and dramatic genres suggested in the eleventh book of Golding's Ovid (Shakespearean Metadrama, pp. 28-30).

  60. Kenneth R. R. Gros Louis, “The Triumph and Death of Orpheus in the English Renaissance,” Studies in English Literature, 9.1 (Winter, 1969), 63-80. Elizabeth Sewell has claimed that Shakespeare “trusts poetry, if Orpheus is undivided, if poetry and dreams and shadows and the theater are taken as a means toward learning and even toward science.” See The Orphic Voice: Poetry and Natural History (New Haven, 1960), p. 110.

  61. Tamburlaine the Great, Part I (Prologue, 1-8), in The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe, ed. Roma Gill (Oxford, 1987).

  62. In his reading of Richard II as a dramatization of “the interpretive efforts of the listener,” Keir Elam considers Sir Pierce of Exton's construction of Bolingbroke's ambiguous utterance (5.4.1-2, 7-9) as the nexus between an undetermined illocutionary speech-act and perlocutionary action (The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama [London and New York, 1980], pp. 164-65).

  63. The plebeians' transformation from passive spectators to furious actors seems to evoke Ovid's account of the death of Orpheus (though, it should be noted, without tidy correspondence). Murellus calls them “blocks,” “stones,” “worse than senseless things” for their unreflective devotion to Caesar (1.1.34). In Ovid's account, Orpheus draws the trees, beasts, and stones to follow him, but these same stones become involuntarily “reddened with the blood of the singer” only when the Maenads hurl them at the poet (Ovid's Metamorphoses, trans. Rolfe Humphries [Bloomington, 1955], p. 259). Antony seems to contrast the plebeians to such passivity, however, when he declares in his funeral oration, “You are not wood, you are not stones” (3.2.142). Here the semi-autonomous plebeians resemble the bloodthirsty Maenads rather than their inanimate instruments. Nor does Julius Caesar clearly designate one particular character as a figure of Orpheus' victimization. The ominous “bird of night” that sits “Even at noon-day upon the market-place / Howting and shrieking” (1.3.26-28), for instance, may recall Ovid's description of the Maenads' attack on Orpheus: “they came thronging / Like birds who see an owl, wandering in daylight” (p. 260); thus the owl in 1.3 may represent an Orphic Caesar, soon to be set upon by the Furious conspirators. But if the conspirators are likened to the Maenads here, then reading the plebeians as “stones” turned against the conspirators by Antony's oration, or as Maenads themselves in the dismemberment of Cinna the poet, seems dubious. Nevertheless, both Caesar and Cinna die like Orpheus, “who stretched out / His hands in supplication, and whose voice / For the first time, moved no one” (p. 260). I would argue that Shakespeare's allusions to the death of Orpheus are in fact overdetermined in Julius Caesar, and that this reflects the play's bifurcation of the tragic victim (Orpheus) into Caesar and Brutus. This bifurcation pivots on the death of Cinna. Thus Antony, the conspirators, and the plebeians are described with reference to the Maenads.

  64. A version of this paper was presented at the 1996 International Shakespeare Association World Congress. I am grateful to Gordon Braden, Paul Cantor, James Nohrnberg, Herbert Tucker, and especially Katharine Maus for their help.

James C. Bulman (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: “Ironic Heroism in Julius Caesar: A Repudiation of the Past,” in Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1988, pp. 121-32.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1985, Bulman investigates Shakespeare's manipulation of heroic conventions in his depiction of Brutus, Antony, and Caesar.]

The idioms Shakespeare employed to delineate heroism in his early plays were too restrictive to allow him a personal signature. It is not by chance that these plays for years were thought to be the work, or at least to contain the work, of other dramatists: they fully partake of the conventions that were the stock-in-trade of stage heroism. But together they constitute only Shakespeare's apprenticeship to already-established writers. Within a few years, he was forging a mimesis more sophisticated than any that had yet been tried and, as a consequence, was recutting the heroic patterns that only yesterday he had found fashionable enough. His new heroes were characterized by their awareness of conventional expectations, and their tragedies arose from their failure to live up to them—from their inability to wear hand-me-down roles with any comfort or conviction. The authenticity of the plays themselves sprang likewise from their simultaneous employment and repudiation of the conventions that had bodied forth a heroic reality in the “old plays.”

The death of Caesar illustrates how Shakespeare had come to use conventions with detachment, even irony. Julius Caesar is often labeled a sort of revenge play, harking back to various Senecan plays on the theme of Caesar's hubris and perhaps directly to an academic play called Caesar's Revenge. Certainly it has the ethical confrontations and at times the rhetorical style of Senecan offshoots; and the trappings of portentous storms, daggers, ritual murder, and a vengeful ghost cast it in the mold of the more popular Spanish Tragedie and Locrine. Caesar himself bestrides the stage like a conquering colossus. He has an egotistical self-assurance to rival Tamburlaine's—“for always I am Caesar” (1.2.212)—and an imperious will that bends to no external persuasion—“The cause is in my will. I will not come” (2.2.71). His epic hubris, the insolent pride that dares fate to match him in a test of strength, finds apt expression in the conventional outdoing topos:

                                        Danger knows full well
That Caesar is more dangerous than he.
We are two lions litter'd in one day,
And I the elder and more terrible.


And his passionate assertion of heroic selfhood is supremely embodied in the rhetorical set-piece he delivers just prior to his murder. The epic simile, with enough Ovidian fire to make the gods blush, is strongly reminiscent of Tamburlaine:

          I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix'd and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
The skies are painted with unnumb'red sparks,
They are all fire and every one doth shine,
But there's but one in all doth hold his place.
So in the world: 'tis furnish'd well with men,
And men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive;
Yet in the number I do know but one
That unassailable holds on his rank,
Unshak'd of motion. And … I am he.


With the hyperbole that has characterized all conqueror heroes, Caesar ingenuously identifies in himself an absolute integrity of self and self-image. Like Talbot, he is what he says he is—a godlike hero of mythic proportions. The language defines him as such; and public acclaim, heard offstage each time he refuses the crown, affirms it. But Shakespeare does not let this assertion stand unchallenged. Against that offstage acclaim, he gives us an antiphonal voice onstage that relentlessly, right up to the time of the murder, points out Caesar's naked frailties: he is deaf in one ear; he has epilepsy; Cassius once had to save him from drowning. Even his wife Calpurnia qualifies our admiration by gently mocking his vaunt as unwise boasting: “Alas, my lord, / Your wisdom is consum'd in confidence” (2.2.48-49). In the judgment of various Renaissance historians, such hubris provided ample justification for Caesar's murder; and so Brutus characterizes it: “People and senators, be not affrighted. / Fly not; stand still. Ambition's debt is paid” (3.1.82-83, my italics).

But much as Brutus would like to conceive of Caesar's death as a moral exemplum, a just retribution in the tradition of the Fall of Princes, he cannot: he is too circumspect to believe in the public construction he puts on it. Like a chivalric defender of national honor in the early histories, or even more like Titus who takes great risks to preserve Rome's honor, Brutus would define his role in Caesar's death as that of heroic justicer. He would prefer to regard the murder as consonant with public rather than private honor—

If it be aught toward the general good,
Set honor in one eye and death i' th' other,
And I will look on both indifferently;


—but he senses more deeply that his role likens him to a revenger who calls wrongs to a private accounting without recourse to law.

Brutus is aware that he has insufficient evidence of those “wrongs” to justify the murder. “To speak truth of Caesar, / I have not known when his affections sway'd / More than his reason” (2.1.19-21). Thus, in order to persuade himself, he must conjecture some future cause and proceed to act on that conjecture as if it were proof:

                    And, since the quarrel
Will bear no color for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus.


The vocabulary of his internal debate, “Fashion it thus,” reveals in him an active will to dissemble. He will seek no “cavern” to mask the “monstrous visage” of conspiracy, but rather will “hide it in smiles and affability” (ll. 80-82, passim). Beyond the mask of smiles, he advocates a grander imposture that would disguise blood revenge in the cloak of ceremony. “Let's be sacrificers, but not butchers,” he urges his fellow conspirators (l. 166):

And let our hearts, as subtle masters do,
Stir up their servants to an act of rage,
And after seem to chide 'em. This shall make
Our purpose necessary, and not envious;
Which so appearing to the common eyes,
We shall be call'd purgers, not murderers.


Brutus's advice to his coconspirators is remarkably like Volumnia's to Coriolanus: as the public eye alone will determine the legitimacy of your heroic fame, act the part nobly, even if you do not believe in it. The pretense to heroism, reflected in the “seem” and the “so appearing,” is ironic because Brutus would include his own among the “common eyes” he is trying to deceive. With a duplicity of which the more conventionally drawn heroes of Shakespeare's earlier plays were incapable, Brutus teaches his fellows to play a role to convince the audience of their integrity, and at the same time he would convince himself that the role is perfectly consistent with his ethical selfhood. He would be as absolute as Caesar in believing himself a hero. The traditional heroic vocabulary he uses conveys that wish: “our hearts,” seats of the will, must stir “their servants,” the passions, to “an act of rage,” an essential component of heroes from Achilles onward. And why? Because murder resulting from a noble wrath will always be condoned as a heroic deed. So strong is Brutus's wish, in fact, that it almost fathers self-delusion.

His wish is undermined by the self-consciousness with which he uses the heroic idiom, however. In his attempt to use the idiom to effect only an appearance of heroic purpose, its credibility as a means of representing reality suffers. Brutus tries hard to convince us otherwise. To reinforce the legitimacy of his purpose, he resorts to a form of traditional oath-taking; but he metamorphoses it into a fellowship of honesty, suggesting that the reality of the oath transcends mere words: “What need we any spur but our own cause. … And what other oath / Than honesty to honesty engag'd?” (ll. 123, 126-27). Shakespeare recalls for us the moment when the Andronici, with no discrepancy between a heroic sign and its significance, took vows against Saturninus, and the even earlier episode when York's family vowed revenge against Clifford. Brutus adopts the ritual—“Give me your hands all over, one by one” (l. 112)—only to try to outdo it in high-minded pretense: “No, not an oath. If not the face of men, / The sufference of our souls, the time's abuse” (ll. 114-15). But in declining the oath itself, in reaching instead for something more universal, he fails to engage himself with the form and with the power of its accumulated meaning that generations of heroes had counted on for sustenance. The self-consciousness with which he manipulates the form betrays his detachment from the ethos it signifies.

Brutus's failure to be engaged with the forms he enacts is dramatized even more explicitly in the murder of Caesar. Ritual murder scenes were a popular part of the revenge tradition. Shakespeare had played them to the hilt in his Henry VI plays, especially when Edward, Richard, and Clarence one by one stab young Prince Edward before his mother's eyes (3 Henry VI 5.5) and again, even more sensationally, in the Thyestian banquet of blood that concludes the festivities in Titus Andronicus. Caesar himself had been ritually murdered in the academic Caesar's Revenge, falling to the music of Cassius's couplet, “Stab on, stab on, thus should your Poniards play, / Aloud deepe note upon this trembling Kay” (ll. 1699-1700), and confronted at the last by Brutus's stern rebuke:

But lives hee still, yet doth the Tyrant breath?
Chalinging Heavens with his blasphemies,
I bloody Caesar, Caesar, Brutus too,
Doth geeve thee this, and this to quite Romes wrongs.

(ll. 1723-24, 1729-30)

Shakespeare's Brutus, unlike his earlier counterpart, is not content simply to do the deed out of moral conviction. Rather, he arranges Caesar's murder as a theatrical event. He directs his accomplices to play their parts “as our Roman actors do, / With untir'd spirits and formal constancy” (2.1.226-27)—an admission that constancy is no more to him than outward form—and bestows legitimacy on the murder by bidding them to bathe their hands in Caesar's blood, besmear their swords, then walk with him to the market-place,

And, waving our red weapons o'er our heads,
Let's all cry, “Peace, freedom, and liberty!”


Through these conventional signs of ritual sacrifice, Brutus hopes to persuade his audience of Romans that Caesar's murder was a heroic act—a purge of tyranny, as in the old play—and that he and his accomplices are liberators, Rome's saviors, not butchers. He and Cassius even speculate that players in “ages hence” will reenact this “lofty scene” to the glory of their memory. “How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport,” Brutus ponders (l. 114); and in so pondering, he “places” the event in a theatrical context and attempts to convince us, as well as himself, that outward shows may create a substantial reality.

Allusion to the theater was not new to a Shakespearean hero. As far back as 3 Henry VI, Warwick, in his scene of oath-taking, had asked in agitation,

Why stand we like soft-hearted women here,
Wailing our losses, whiles the foe doth rage,
And look upon, as if the tragedy
Were play'd in jest by counterfeiting actors?


Warwick's rejection of jest and counterfeit, however, affirms the reality of himself, his friends, and their cause: they must not act, but be, revengers. Brutus's use of theatrical imagery is far more complex. He tries to make acting and being inseparable. He instructs his friends to counterfeit like actors; he embraces the ritual shows by which he will win public approval; he conceives of the murder throughout as a scene played for posterity. Reality, for him, may be no deeper than the stage. But if the audience sees that Brutus can manipulate conventions to give a false appearance of heroism, then one's faith in conventional criteria for judging the reality of heroism on the stage cannot rest secure. The nature of dramatic illusion shifts. We do not trust, as Brutus hopes the Romans will trust, in the absolute correspondence of sign and significance. We may see more heroism in Brutus's struggle to come to terms with the heroic idiom than we see in the idiom itself. His self-consciousness becomes more compelling than his actual deeds. And the tension he feels between aping heroic forms and knowing that those forms are, for him, counterfeit, makes him real in a way that no conventionally drawn hero, not even Caesar himself, could ever be.

Shakespeare treats the heroic idiom with more irony in the various voices Antony adopts following Caesar's death. Most famous of these is the voice of heroic revenger. Left alone, after the conspirators have departed, Antony addresses Caesar's corpse in a lament that harks back to Clifford's lament over the corpse of his father, in which he vows to dry up all tears of pity in a “flaming wrath” and to find solace in cruelty. But Antony's prophecy is more universal:

A curse shall light upon the limbs of men;
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;
Blood and destruction shall be so in use
And dreadful objects so familiar
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quartered with the hands of war,
All pity chok'd with custom of fell deeds.


It stems from a long tradition of curse and threat of the sort that Shakespeare sprinkled liberally through his histories. Tamburlaine had called on it, “threatening a death and famine to this land,” at the death of Zenocrate. Talbot had threatened to “conquer, sack, and utterly consume” Bordeaux; and Henry V, to shut up the gates of mercy and mow “like grass” the “fresh-fair virgins” and “flow'ring infants” of Harfleur. Behind these manifestations lie imprecations in earlier English tragedies that invoke both biblical sources, such as this in Gorboduc: “But dearth and famine shall possesse the land! / The townes shall be consumed and burnt with fire”; and classical sources, such as this in Jocasta: “And angry Mars shall ouercome it all / With famine, flame, rape, murther, dole and death.” But Antony does not forget the more Senecan elements of revenge tragedy either. The ghost that appeared three times in Caesar's Revenge, once in the company of Discord, who comes from hell to ring down civil war, may be on his mind when he says,

And Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch's voice
Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war.


Antony's speech thus fuses rhetorical traditions with remarkable originality by sounding the voices of prophecy, curse, and threat all at once. Ironically, the warning of impending horrors, usually spoken by a choric observer such as Carlisle who, in Richard II, prophesies another Golgotha, here is spoken by the man who will bring those horrors about. The prophecy is thus self-fulfilling: not Caesar's spirit, but Antony himself, will let slip the dogs of war. Antony's language, on reflection, seems to be spoken with a self-conscious passion; and one may grow more suspicious that he is employing the heroic idiom to disguise his motives when, in the Forum scene that immediately follows, he turns revenge to political advantage and manipulates the throng with rhetorical artifice. His method is well known, so I shall cite just one overlooked allusion to revenge tradition to prove my point. Claiming that he is not disposed to “stir” the “hearts and minds” of the people “to mutiny and rage” against the “honorable men” who killed Caesar (3.2.123-26)—a disclaimer that echoes the language Brutus uses to stir the conspirators to do the deed—Antony produces Caesar's will, which, he says, “I do not mean to read”:

Let but the commons hear this testament—
.....And they would go and kiss dead Caesar's wounds
And dip their napkins in his sacred blood.


Antony's lines poignantly recall the by-then-famous scenes in which Hieronimo dipped his napkin in Horatio's blood as a token of revenge and in which Margaret tormented York with the napkin dipped in the blood of his son Rutland. It is important to recognize the power of Antony's allusion. He says, in effect, that if the people knew the will of Caesar, they would all turn into Hieronimos ranging for revenge against the “honorable” assassins. He adopts, for the moment, a diction that had served him in his earlier lament and to which, after this, he need not return. The arch control of his Forum speech, in fact, employs little of such emotive language. He has no need for it. The allusion to The Spanish Tragedie simply is a reminder of an idiom Antony had milked and then cast off. In his shift of rhetorical gears, Shakespeare marks Antony's emergence from the role of antique revenger to the role of Machiavellian leader who recognizes, like the later Ulysses and Aufidius, that virtue lies in the interpretation of the times.

Antony's manipulation of the revenge idiom should not come as a revelation in the Forum scene. Even before his lament, he tries out different voices that serve his immediate purposes. Entering the conspirators, uncertain of what they have in store for him, he at once adopts the conventional language of de casibus tragedy, moralizing in best ubi sunt tradition the ephemeral nature of man's greatness:

O mighty Caesar! Dost thou lie so low?
Are all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils,
Shrunk to this little measure? Fare thee well.


In this are the seeds of Hamlet's “Imperious Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay, / Might stop a hold to keep the wind away” (5.1.213-14). But Antony is canny. Recognizing that Brutus will most respect a noble response to the murder of a friend, Antony turns to the lurid vocabulary of blood tragedy to dare the conspirators to butcher him too:

I do beseech ye, if you bear me hard,
Now, whilst your purpled hands do reek and smoke,
Fulfill your pleasure.


The dare works: it forces Brutus to defend his deed against Antony's characterization of it as a crime and, in the process, to offer Antony an honorable love. Antony seizes the opportunity to insure his safety by ceremonially shaking hands with the conspirators—

Let each man render me his bloody hand.
First, Marcus Brutus, will I shake with you;
Next, Caius Cassius, do I take your hand;
Now, Decius Brutus, yours; now yours, Metellus;


—and adopts thereby a traditional heroic form that Brutus had tried to surpass in claiming that inner honesty, not outward show, determined the honor of his course. Outward show stands Antony in good stead here.

Yet he fears that his credit may stand on slippery ground. By too easily embracing a heroic alliance with the enemies of Caesar, he thinks they may have cause to suspect his honesty. Cunningly, he puts the question to them: “what shall I say?” (l. 191). What he decides to say is politically shrewd: first, to beg Caesar's forgiveness for his apparent betrayal, then to lapse back into lament for greatness gone:

Pardon me, Julius! Here wast thou bay'd, brave hart,
Here didst thou fall, and here thy hunters stand,
Sign'd in thy spoil, and crimson'd in thy lethe.
O world, thou wast the forest to this hart,
And this, indeed, O world, the heart of thee!
How like a deer, strucken by many princes,
Dost thou here lie!


To the conspirators, this sounds convincing enough to be interrupted. To us, it ought to sound like “art.” The style—one Antony has not used before—is Ovidian. The pun on “heart” anticipates that of Orsino who, some one or two years later, laments that he is another Acteon hounded by his desires: this romantic context tells us something about the artifice of such verse. But Antony's pretty conceit about the hunted hart bears a more striking resemblance to Shakespeare's early narrative poetry and to the pastoral similes and crimson conceits by which Titus and Marcus prettified Lavinia's mutilation:

Marcus: O, thus I found her, straying in the park,
Seeking to hide herself, as doth the deer
That hath receiv'd some unrecuring wound.
Titus: It was my deer, and he that wounded her
Hath hurt me more than had he kill'd me dead.


Even earlier, Talbot had rallied his English forces against the French “curs” by calling them “timorous deer” who ought to transform themselves into “desperate stags” and “turn on the bloody hounds with heads of steel” (1 Henry VI 4.2.45-52). But by the time of Julius Caesar, such Ovidian metamorphosing of violence was a thing of the past, an idiom Shakespeare had experimented with, found wanting, and discarded. Antony, in reverting to it, deliberately sets Caesar's murder in an outmoded context: the language is showy enough to persuade the conspirators that he is a man of noble feeling but artificial enough to indicate that Antony is speaking from the mind, not from the heart.

The dispassionate ease with which Antony adopts expedient voices allows him inevitably to get the better of Brutus. Brutus tries manfully to identify himself by the heroic forms he enacts; he denies that there is any disparity between idiom and selfhood. Antony admits the disparity and thus is free to play on it as he sees fit. The divorce between acting and being causes no dilemma in Antony as it does in Brutus. A particular idiom does not define his character; the self-consciousness to play roles defined by the idiom does. Lest I be thought to mean that Antony is no more than an impostor, however, let me issue a caveat. The audience's awareness that Antony has a selfhood deeper than his idiom dawns only gradually. When he laments over Caesar, offers his breast to the conspirators' swords, shakes their hands, mourns the hunting of a noble hart, and swears to avenge the murder and appease Caesar's ghost, the audience may believe in the rhetorical reality of his character. Only in retrospect—and the moment of discovery will differ for each of us—will the audience appreciate that rhetoric and character are distinct from one another. Antony's idiom shifts, not for the reason York's shifts between the second and third parts of Henry VI—that is, to satisfy Shakespeare's rhetorical design, but because by those shifts, Shakespeare can dramatize in Antony a dynamic process of thought that psychologically justifies the choice of idiom. Motivated by political self-interest, Antony himself has both the reason and the autonomy, lacking in Shakespeare's early heroes, to manipulate rhetorical conventions: Shakespeare allows him to usurp his own prerogative to determine character by rhetorical means. As one moves chronologically through the scene of Caesar's death, therefore, Shakespeare preserves conventional modes of speech as momentarily adequate to define traditional attitudes and types of heroism, as if he, in a manner of old, has applied character with rhetorical brushstrokes; but in a retrospective analysis of all such moments, we realize that he has been forging new criteria for determining heroic character. Antony is the roles he plays in sequence, but the reality of his character is more than the sum of his parts.

As with Antony, so with the play. In a sense, Shakespeare satisfies conventional expectations of blood tragedy in the cosmic unrest, the ritual slaughter, the scenes of civil discord, the appearance of the ghost. He also satisfies expectations of heroic tragedy in Caesar's de casibus fall, the noble reconciliation of Brutus and Cassius, the stoicism of Brutus's suicide, even in the conventional elegies spoken over Cassius—“The sun of Rome is set. Our day is gone” (5.3.63)—and over Brutus—“This was the noblest Roman of them all” (5.5.68). But he does so only after exposing the conventions of heroism to ironic scrutiny, occasionally (as in Caesar's bombast) to parody, and finding them inadequate to represent a heroic reality. Heroism in Julius Caesar becomes real when Shakespeare holds conventions at arm's length—cuts traditional heroic patterns out of well-worn cloth only so that characters, scenes, the play itself, may try them on and complain, “These don't fit. They're yesterday's fashion. Fustian! We have outgrown them.”

Cynthia Marshall (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6619

SOURCE: “Portia's Wound, Calphurnia's Dream: Reading Character in Julius Caesar,” in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 24, No. 2, Spring, 1994, pp. 471-88.

[In the following essay, Marshall discusses Portia's self-wounding and Calphurnia's dream of Caesar's death as they represent the linguistic instability of character in Julius Caesar.]

“If the body had been easier to understand, nobody would have thought that we had a mind.”1

Roland Barthes sardonically described the Mankiewicz film of Julius Caesar as portraying “a universe without duplicity, where Romans are Romans thanks to the most legible of signs: hair on the forehead.”2 The film's use of hair fringes to signify Roman identity and its use of sweat to signify thought were to Barthes examples of “degraded spectacle,” for according to his professed “ethic of signs,” “it is both reprehensible and deceitful to confuse the sign with what is signified” (p. 28). Barthes approves those signs which are “openly intellectual and so remote that they are reduced to an algebra” and those which are “deeply rooted, invented, so to speak, on each occasion, revealing an internal, a hidden facet, and indicative of a moment in time, no longer of a concept.” He objects to “hybrid” (p. 28) forms—those which are intentionally presented as naturalistic.

Barthes's characteristically pregnant remarks suggest some of the difficulties of reading character. It seems that inevitably there is slippage between “the sign” of character—textual, gestural, or otherwise—and “what is signified”—the assumption or production of a coherent subject. Barthes's two realms of allowable signs—“the intellectual and the visceral” (p. 28)—might serve as the poles between which knowledge of character moves. We know that character is an intellectual construct conveyed in literature through words. Yet we generally assume, in literature, in the theater, and in our own lives, that character can be revealed through actions, occasional responses, “visceral signs.” I want eventually to return to this matter of the semiotics of character, but I will do so by way of a meditation on Julius Caesar and its own “ethic of signs.” My effort to rethink the epistemic relation of body to dramatic character, and ultimately of body to identity itself, begins with consideration of the theories of character enfolded in the episode in which Portia wounds her thigh. After that I will go on to suggest how Calphurnia's dream of Caesar's bleeding statue exemplifies a more tentative sense of how characters are comprehensible to each other and to us.


By Barthes's criteria, one could consider the text of Julius Caesar, rather than merely Mankiewicz's film, to be “reprehensible and deceitful,” haunted as it is by ambiguous symbols, what Barthes might call illegitimate signs—physical events and bodily images drafted into the service of symbolism. The stabbing of Caesar presents the most notorious example of this virtually obsessive symbol-making. Laden with tags of historical importance, Caesar's death can (and does) signify murder, betrayal, assassination, an allegory of civic disruption, an Oedipal crime, or the inauguration of “liberty, freedom, and enfranchisement” (3.1.81);3 only very rarely does the event receive attention as an act of physical suffering and bodily death. Calphurnia's dream of Caesar's statue spouting blood and Portia's wounding her thigh as “proof” (2.1.299) of her constancy, along with the augurs' discovery of a beast without a heart, are also odd juxtapositions of sign and signified. Each of these images aspires to be what Barthes calls a “visceral” sign, for each reveals, like sweating, a literally hidden facet, evidence of a bodily interior. Yet they lack the spontaneity of properly “visceral” signs, since their meaning is forced, even gratuitous. Calphurnia's dream and the augury are assigned contradictory meanings within the play itself; each occasions an interpretive dispute. Portia's wound, however, occurs without such mediation. Offered at once to Brutus and to the audience as “strong proof of [her] constancy” (2.1.299), the wound receives by way of interpretation within the play only Brutus' response: “O ye gods, / Render me worthy of this noble wife!” (2.1.302-03). I think that it is no longer possible (if it ever was) for audiences simply to accept this Stoic formulation. So in considering several responses to Portia's wound, I will be concerned with the challenge theatrical violence presents to our systems for ordering knowledge of the world and more particularly of other people—the sort of knowledge we debate when we consider the notion of character.

As the first act of violence in a work centering on assassination and the first knife wound in a dramatic action in which five more characters will be stabbed, Portia's “voluntary wound” formally establishes a certain brutal pattern.4 It is scarcely surprising that images of fractured bodily forms should figure in a play about assassination, and traditional approaches order the image cluster initiated with Portia's wound around the central motif of Caesar's body pierced by wounds. My concern here is not with formal order, however, but with the ways of knowing represented in the play. Portia uses her body to establish the validity of her claim on Brutus. When she appeals to Brutus on his own Stoic terms, Portia's proffered “proof” that she will not “disclose” her husband's “counsels” appears to be highly successful. Brutus quickly promises that her “bosom shall partake / The secrets of my heart” (2.1.305-06). Adopting her metaphor of the body as a container for truth, he locates his secrets within his heart and images her bosom as opening to receive or “partake” them. Seeking to be “worthy of this noble wife,” Brutus emulates her action when he stabs Caesar and later when he stabs himself. Brutus sees the assassination as proof of his dedication to the Roman state (“Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I / loved Rome more” [3.2.21-22]). Later, his suicide at once demonstrates and obliterates Brutus' guilt: “Caesar, now be still. / I killed not thee with half so good a will” (5.5.50-51). The pattern Portia's wound establishes, then, is that of Stoic exaltation of the will and abnegation of the body.

Critical responses to this episode have often been marked by a commitment to reading historically that covers an implicit identification with Brutus. The Arden editor, T. S. Dorsch, for instance, saw Portia as “a wife of whom any man would wish to prove himself worthy,” one who “has proved her fortitude in bearing physical pain” and thereby demonstrated her “moral courage.”5 Reuben Brower praised “her grand Stoic gesture” without detectable irony.6 G. Wilson Knight effaced Portia's nascent subjectivity even more completely by reading the action as a reflection of Brutus' honor, which is “so strong … that Portia knows she must play up to it, show herself courageous, possessing a sense of ‘honour’ like his.”7 These critics have in common an investment in a brand of Stoicism, with its value-laden opposition of spirit and body. When character is regarded as a matter of mind and spirit, Portia's verbal ascription of meaning to her action is unproblematically endorsed; the brokenness of her body figures in the service of an abstract, if personal, goal. The wounding, from this perspective is granted no signification as an event on stage, but is regarded as symbolic only within the conceptual system through which Portia presents it and Brutus receives it.

Yet the theatrical presentation of this episode suggests the inadequacy of such a reading. Because the medium of drama to a certain extent privileges the physical realm over the linguistic, Portia's wound—whether staged or not, but especially if staged—will signify independently of her own words about it. Certainly for a modern, Western audience, deep assumptions about the value to the individual of bodily integrity will strain the purported meaning of this masochistic action. Rather than demonstrating Portia's strength of character, the act of wounding herself suggests to such an audience desperation, hysteria, perhaps derangement. The historical and philosophical slippage between the purported meaning of the wound and the understanding that “naturally” presents itself to a post-Freudian audience suggests the need for further scrutiny of the relation between violence and validity.


When Portia wounds her thigh, she directs attention inward, toward the vulnerable interior of her bodily self. As with any theatrical wound, the surface of spectacle is pierced. The character's body is presented as something that bleeds, feels pain, may die—something more “real” than mere spectacle. One obvious place to turn in theorizing about this interior dimension is toward psychoanalysis, which will see the wound and the dagger as, in various ways, symbolic. While psychoanalysis typically subsumes body to symbol, it will grant to Portia, in contrast to historicist criticism, an active (if unhealthy) inner life.

Perhaps because the action of a woman plunging a dagger into her thigh is so heavily loaded with Freudian sexual symbolism, critics have tended to proceed from noting the wound's sexual suggestiveness to endorsing Portia's stated claim that fortitude is a masculine attribute (“Think you I am no stronger than my sex, / Being so fathered and so husbanded?” [2.1.296-97]). Clifford Ronan constructs a symbolic pregnancy for Portia: “The penetration she has made upon her thigh results in the unwelcome rebirth of her femininity, not an affirmation of her manliness.”8 Robert Miola implicitly compares Portia to Lady Macbeth—“she denies her sex and changes from wife to comrade-in-arms”9—thus also equating the female sex with passivity. While such readings acknowledge symbolic conflicts within Portia, the difficulty of mediating between the literal action and a contextualized meaning remains.

Madelon Sprengnether points in such a direction with the remark that “it is a woman who, oddly enough, articulates the fundamental masculine ethic of the play.”10 David Kranz sees the “knife trick” as Portia's calculated move in a gamble to out-Roman the Romans by appropriating their “masculine ethic.”11 Displaying her ability to perform by Stoic standards and explicitly offering to define herself according to masculine expectations (“so fathered, and so husbanded” [2.1.297]), Portia momentarily destabilizes the masculine code by claiming it as her own. As Gail Kern Paster observes, Portia is “seeking to efface the physical difference that separates her from her husband.”12 In Paster's reading, “Portia calls attention to this bodily site not to remind Brutus of her femaleness, her lack of the phallus, but rather to offer the wound as substitute phallus” (p. 294). While I agree that Portia attempts to erase difference, I see her as attempting to do so by embodying it, by playing a double role. The action of wounding herself, explicitly presentational, requires self-division: the will (tropologically masculine) attacks and conquers the body (correspondingly feminine). As both wielder and victim of the knife/phallus, Portia momentarily brings gender opposition into equilibrium—but at the cost of violence to herself. Her performance of this double role impresses Brutus, even inspires him to carry out the conspiratorial plan, partially because his own personality includes sensitive and nurturing attributes marked as feminine. Thus he must prove himself more manly, more Roman—and inevitably, more violent—than Portia.

Oppositional constructions of gender are of course far too deeply engrained in Roman culture for Portia to neutralize them. In 2.4, Portia retreats from her fierce challenge and declares, even insists upon, gendered difference: “I have a man's mind, but a woman's might. / How hard it is for women to keep counsel!” (2.4.8-9); “Ay me, how weak a thing / The heart of woman is!” (2.4.39-40) Later, her suicide—“she fell distract, / And (her attendants absent) swallowed fire” (4.3.155-56)—while in one sense repeating the topos of the knife wound, is presented as an act of “distract[ion]” rather than of nobility.

In M. D. Faber's view, Portia's behavior is consistent with modern constructions of the pathologically “self-destructive” personality.13 Faber sees Portia's “anger and frustration” as “rooted in an exaggerated dependence upon her spouse” (p. 111). Here, as so often, the psychoanalytic perspective serves to bolster a male order. Although Portia's behavior may be pathological, it has identifiable social and cultural causes. She rebels against a social contract that relegates her to the private sphere of inaction, and that breaks the emotional bonds between her and Brutus. While Brutus meditates on the grounds for action, consults with other conspirators, and takes part in recognizably significant events, Portia is left “in the suburbs / Of [his] good pleasure” (2.1.285-86). Wounding herself, she converts psychic suffering into physical. Her situation and response resemble the female terrorists Julia Kristeva explains as so “brutally excluded from [the] sociosymbolic stratum” as to feel their “affective life” or “condition as a social being” to be “ignored by existing discourse or power.”14 Like Kristeva's terrorists, Portia “counterinvest[s] the violence she has endured, mak[ing] of herself a ‘possessed’ agent of this violence in order to combat what was experienced as frustration” (p. 28). She rebels against a social contract that relegates her to the private sphere of inaction by becoming wielder of the knife. Portia's suicide, as well as her “voluntary wound,” manifest the unacknowledged violence with which she has been thrust aside by Brutus personally and the male order more generally. Staging herself as both agent and victim of violence, she attempts to close the circle of a significant violence within herself. These two acts of personal violence indicate an apparently obsessive need to literalize, to embody, conflict and suffering.

Julius Caesar, establishing a dramatic myth of political origins, encodes violence in the tissue of language. The ongoing process of textualizing the body determines the play's treatment of Caesar's assassination; it also shapes the account of Portia's death. Her suicide figures as a text with which Brutus can (twice) demonstrate his philosophical equanimity (4.3.146-56; 180-94). The manner of her suicide itself links Portia with linguistic violence. Her body, which previously had contained Brutus's words (“partake[n] / The secrets of [his] heart” [2.1.305-6]), becomes the container of fiery coals. “Swallow[ing] fire,” she kills herself by obliterating the organs of speech. And of course the thigh wound also occurs because of words; it is delivered in quest of Brutus's “secret.” Her two acts of violence suggest that Portia is in revolt against the symbolic order, against language as a structure of power. In this sense she resembles an hysteric.

Existing in a culture that grants her few emotional outlets, Portia channels repressed aggression and desire into symbolic violence, as an hysteric would convert these drives into the bodily language of symptoms. Freud understood hysterical symptoms as a language, the body speaking the encoded desires of the unconscious mind. But his own failures, particularly with Dora, led Freud eventually to admit that a reading of this language is uncertain, bivalent, as unstable as gender itself, for “the hysterical symptom is the expression of both a masculine and a feminine unconscious phantasy.”15 Freud also refers to “hysterical attacks in which the patient acts at one and the same time both parts of the underlying sexual phantasy” (p. 151). So too in Julius Caesar, Portia expresses and performs doubleness. Her self-wounding looks from one perspective like the appropriative gesture of a frustrated masculine desire; from another, the thigh wound seems to draw attention to her already-castrated feminine weakness, and thus to emblematize Portia as passive object. Using her own body as a theater, Portia sets numerous and conflicting meanings into play. Thus her performance of violence can be differentiated from that of the other suicides in the play, whose action is primarily directed to the goal of eliminating the self, and only secondarily to the demonstration of Stoicism.

But considering Portia as hysteric leads back to the epistemic question of understanding the internal dimensions of another person, since psychoanalysis postulates hysteria as what Charles Bernheimer calls “pathological interiority.”16 Foucault points to moral and ethical connotations in the conception of internal density; hysteria is associated with a less “solidly dense and firmly organized … internal space of body.”17 Whereas a traditional historicist approach produces a strong, unified Portia, psychoanalysis would see her wound as symptomatic of a character marked by fragmentation, brokenness, neurosis. As Bernheimer writes, “the psychological understanding of hysteria was born in complicity with a moral condemnation of its victims” (pp. 4-5). Despite attempts like that of Hélène Cixous to reclaim hysteria for feminism (“those wonderful hysterics, who subjected Freud to so many voluptuous moments too shameful to mention … they were dazzling”18), the concept of hysteria remains less descriptive than normative in our culture, and it warns of the diagnostician's appropriating role. As the performances of Charcot's patients made so clear, hysteria labels a spectacle that depends in large part on an attentive audience. Hysteria comes to look like a species of characterology, a “linguistic sign” in Harold Fisch's sense,19 ascribing meaning to symptom in order to render the suspect interior of another person knowable, much as a decision as to character type allows comfortably summary conclusions about literature. While Portia's resemblance to an hysteric is instructive in accounting for the unstable meanings her self-wounding sets into motion, the charged significance of the discourse on hysteria serves as an alert to the psychoanalytic (and critical) predilection to stigmatize the deviant (other) woman.


Reading Portia as Stoic or hysteric lends coherence and shape to her self-destructive actions. Her wounding and her suicide become comprehensible; they fall into accordance with the dictates of a symbol system. Both these diagnoses also preserve the separate domains of sign and signified. When the voluntary wound is considered the sign of Stoicism, or the symptom of an hysterical “acting out,” the significant reality of character is posited as prior to the gesture of taking knife to flesh. The wound can thus be regarded as linguistic sign, as an intertextual stage direction, and indeed, to the extent that Shakespeare's plays are treated as poetic texts, this would be the limit of the wound's phenomenal reality. But when we attend to what Alessandro Serpieri calls “the theatrical destiny of textual meaning,”20 the wound can be seen to offer compelling surplus meanings; it may even become significant in its own right. To read Portia's wound—or, by extension, any act of onstage violence—as independently significant may, in Barthes's terms, “confuse the sign with what is signified” (p. 28). Yet I would argue that such confusion is inevitable if a notion of dramatic character encompasses the body's fate, as represented on stage, as well as the character's more purely linguistic presentation.

I think we need to set the theatrical moment of physical violence against an exaggerated poststructuralist dictum that we have only language, and not each other, or even ourselves, in any preverbal way. An audience's response to physical violence will certainly be conditioned, even largely determined, by the prior experiences of the individual viewer and by the group experiences of the audience as a whole, including most saliently the immediate theatrical production—both the play text and its particular enactment. Obviously an audience treats farce differently from tragedy, views Macbeth's death differently from Cordelia's. Blood is crucial to the staging of a violent wounding, and as Leo Kirschbaum recognized long ago, the presence of stage blood “will always excite horror in the audience.”21 Stage blood, as Kirschbaum indicates, has significance that surpasses the symbolic or imagistic. It marks a certain represented experience, one of bodily suffering, that has great relevance to the notion of character. Because pain fractures language, the phenomenon of onstage violence can, and often does, powerfully alter the semiotics of drama.

Elaine Scarry has written eloquently of pain's inexpressibility: “Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned.”22 This insight holds true with lower forms of drama, such as Pyramus' “Tongue, lose thy light, / Moon, take thy flight. / Now die, die, die, die, die” (MND 5.1.297-99), where not only does the repeated syllable drain itself of meaning, but reference is made (however nonsensically) to the abandonment of powers of speech (“Tongue, lose thy light”), as well as sight (“Moon, take thy flight”). Gloucester's blinding offers a more compelling example—“O cruel! O you gods!” (KL, 3.7.70)—especially as it is followed by the slain servant's “O, I am slain! My lord, you have one eye left / To see some mischief on him. O!” (KL, 3.7.81-82). The speech is bracketed with the pre-verbal “O,” whose second occurrence, especially, rings hollowly as the servant dies. The eloquent death speeches of the major characters in Julius Caesar—Caesar's, at the play's center, binding his fate to Brutus' betrayal, and Brutus' final speech reiterating the psychic bond with Caesar—might seem to obviate any sense that the moment of death is one of extremity. But in general tragedy's “project,” as Sheila Murnaghan puts it, is that of “replacing the body's adventures with forms of speech.”23 Aiming as it does to express the inexpressible, tragedy's encoding of pain and death in language succeeds not simply through mimetic realism but through the creation in the reader's or viewer's mind of the represented phenomena of suffering and loss.

Moments of onstage violence such as that of Portia's voluntary wound offer a distinctive variation on models of theatrical involvement that are based on the concept of spectacle. The pain occasioned by Portia's wound can be said to occur not in Portia's body (as it is represented by the actor's) and not in Portia's mind (to which the audience has no access). Rather the represented (that is fake) wound might best be said to occasion pain in the mind of the members of the audience. The question of where pain occurs has long been a test case for philosophers probing the epistemic relation of mind and body. I would suggest that represented violence has an affect that is powerful or cathartic largely because it breaks down the barriers of self and other that shape ordinary human interaction. Portia's wound directs attention inward, asserts an interior dimension to her character. But since the pain from the wound occurs in the audience's imagination, and not only in the actor's, Portia's interior dimension becomes coterminous with that of the individual viewer. While pain may be inexpressible, and pain's victim can in certain situations be relegated to a status of abjection, the representation of pain in the theater has the potential to offer a different sort of dynamic. Such a representation presents the peculiar possibility of feeling the pain of another—albeit an imagined or represented other.

What does this mean for the concept of character? For one thing, just as we have always known, those characters seem most compellingly real whom we, for one reason or another, take into ourselves. When this happens we experience a character just as we do ourselves—as discontinuous, partial, at once present and absent, known and unknown. When we feel a character's pain we do not experience him or her in the way Freud (would say he) experienced a patient, as something of a mystery to be deciphered. Still less does a model of historical alterity describe such an interaction. Focusing on the theatrical dynamic as activated by physical violence onstage suggests linkage between Barthes's categories of intellectual and visceral signs. A moment of wounding or suffering onstage, while evidently revelatory of “an internal, a hidden facet, and indicative of a moment in time,” is also “openly intellectual” and “remote,” in the sense that an audience recognizes the represented pain as fictional, at the same time that it is felt as real.

Responding to a character in this way may seem to erase difference, to evoke what Cixous calls “the you-as-I relationship,”24 a fundamental refusal (which she sees as inherent in the notion of character itself) to admit the indecipherable otherness of the represented subject. Scarry's insight into the incommunicability of pain would also seem to point toward the futility or presumption of an empathic response. Indeed, Scarry suggests that pain emblematizes the skeptical dilemma: “‘hearing about pain’ may exist as the primary model of what it is ‘to have doubt’” (p. 4). Theater, however, is uniquely suited to break the impasse of skepticism, providing as it does a simultaneous awareness of the character's presence and absence. The character and her pain are located in the text, on the stage, and in the minds of the audience. Thus the enactment of violence or pain onstage can force an audience to “stay in the presence of the Other.” This is Johannes Fabian's goal for ethnography, but one that applies also to theater, which allows an audience “recognition of the Other that is not limited to representations.”25 Whereas representation requires the power to fix and signify, recognition of the “presence of the Other” preserves the strangeness and instability of a knowledge gained, lost, and regained.26 This epistemological model of recognition, born in a sympathy with primary, bodily modes of expression, is exemplified within Julius Caesar by Calphurnia's dream.


Plutarch reports two versions of Calphurnia's dream: first, “that Caesar was slain, and that she had him in her arms”; and second, that “the Senate having set upon the top of Caesar's house, for an ornament and setting forth of the same, a certain pinnacle, Calphurnia dreamed that she saw it broken down, and that she thought she lamented and wept for it.”27 Shakespeare erases the types of bodily intimacy—the first maternal, the second phallic—represented by these dreams, and creates in their stead the dream in which Calphurnia sees Caesar's statue “with an hundred spouts / … run pure blood” (2.2.77-78). The dream foreshadows Caesar's fate at the hands of the conspirators, and it lends coherence to a play about assassination. It also comprehends Caesar's problematic identity and thereby reveals Calphurnia's capacity as dreaming subject. In an unusual reversal of an established gender dynamic, Calphurnia functions as the subject to whose knowledge the audience receives (mediated) access, while Caesar is the object of scrutiny.

That she is denied even the articulation of her dream, which is narrated by the appropriating Caesar, demonstrates an effacement of her linguistic presence; Calphurnia is largely without the power of words in the play. But her relative muteness also confers on Calphurnia the paradoxical freedom of one unconfined by limiting verbal structures. In a world where words have grown false, where a term such as “honorable” has been emptied of its established meaning, the dream employs a sensory form of knowledge, a literal envisioning of Caesar's fate. In its opposition to linguistic codes and in its emphasis on an experiential base of knowledge, the dream suggests the Kristevan semiotic and the corresponding “rejection of the symbolic” (p. 24).

The dream discovers an image that condenses two opposite conceptions of Caesar, monumental and vulnerable. In terms of plot and symbol, Julius Caesar proceeds on a developed contrast between the idea or reputation of Caesar—what Brutus calls his “spirit” (2.1.169), what is represented on stage by the ghost, what the conspirators fear but fail to destroy—and the mortal man to whom this created, mythic identity is attached, whose physical weaknesses Shakespeare underscores. Considered in these dualistic terms, the power Caesar retains after his death—imaged in the ghost and in the growing similarity Brutus and Octavius bear to him—appears a triumph of spirit over body, an affirmation that the concept of Caesarism is indeed detachable from the mortal man who is Caesar. But the attention given to Caesar's dead body, which “dominates the scene for almost 450 lines after his death,”28 contradicts the relatively simple vision of Stoic triumph. With Brutus' command, “Stoop, Romans, stoop, / And let us bathe our hands in Caesar's blood / Up to the elbows” (3.1.105-07), the body becomes the central prop in the highly self-conscious series of political dramas through which the conspirators and triumvirs attempt to grasp power. Antony vows to Caesar's body (“O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth” [3.1.254]) his curse of vengeance. And whereas Brutus' dispassionate funeral oration discusses Caesar in terms of typically Roman abstractions (love, fortune, valor, ambition), Antony combines his simple and provocative irony with repeated reference to Caesar's body.29

Yet Antony's focus on the body betrays nothing of what could be called visceral sympathy. His attentions are strictly purposive and performative. When he asks the crowd to “Bear with me. / My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar” (3.2.105-06), Antony draws attention squarely to himself, not to Caesar or Caesar's body. The corpse demonstrates the conspirators' “bloody treason” (3.2.192) and occasions Antony's own show of nobility. Antony introduces to the plebeians the iconic dimension of Caesar's corpse:

Let but the commons hear this testament,
Which (pardon me) I do not mean to read,
And they would go and kiss dead Caesar's wounds
And dip their napkins in his sacred blood;
Yea, beg a hair of him for memory.


After rousing the crowd to a frenzy by enumerating the separate holes in Caesar's mantle and graphically locating the scene of the murder “at the base of Pompey's statue” (188), Antony displays the “piteous spectacle” (198) of the body itself. His use of the corpse contributes importantly to his successful manipulation of the crowd. Caesar's body, a prop used to demonstrate Antony's purposeful interpretation of the assassination, becomes the equivalent of the augurs' beast, a sign capable of demonstrating multiple, conflicting meanings. Antony's detailed account of the murder has doubtful veracity, since he himself fled from the scene of the crime.30 But with a genius for the theatrical, he realizes the capacity of the graphically wounded body to verify ideas—here, his reading of the assassination as “bloody treason”—placed in conjunction with it.31 To solidify his audience's own part in this visceral process, Antony attributes to them a capacity for emotion, figured as possession of a physical interior, and hence a reality corresponding to Caesar's wounded corpse. Prohibiting them from responding unemotionally, he says, “You are not wood, you are not stones, but men; / And being men, hearing the will of Caesar, / It will inflame you, it will make you mad” (3.2.142-44). His references to their “tears” (169), their “spirits” (228), and his own ability “To stir men's blood” (223) likewise attribute to the plebeians a visceral source of authentic response.

As a result of Antony's attentions, Caesar's body is freighted with enormous significance by the end of the second funeral oration. This accretion of meaning to the body compounds the question of Caesar's identity: as Hamlet might put it, is Caesar “with the body”? Theatrical presentation erases some degree of body-soul dualism, since the same actor will ordinarily portray the living Caesar and his ghost. But how completely does the theatrical condition, in which Caesar's spirit is embodied and the actor's body spiritualized, destory the initial conception of Caesar's body and soul as separate? The difficulty is not simply presentational, and not limited to knowing Caesar; rather, as Fisch puts it, “the real question is whether we can speak of identities at all” (p. 601). In Julius Caesar, the general inability of central characters to acknowledge the separate reality of others renders identity an opaque and illusive concept. William O. Scott, writing on the play's current of philosophical skepticism, observes: “Self-knowledge involves self-reference, and in both processes the subject and object fail to coincide.”32 In the midst of such a crisis of knowledge, Calphurnia's dream presents a decided contrast with other impressions of Caesar, for the dream image spans the contested notions of Caesar as myth and Caesar as mortal man.

In its concern with the ritualized production of political authority, Julius Caesar questions the notion of stable historical identity, and emblematizes its doubts in the image of the bleeding statue.33 The fixity of monumental art is betrayed by blood, by the body's separateness from the symbolic order (Thus the bleeding statue bears a certain analogy to the theatrical presentation of the “monumental” text.) Statues provide “a metaphor for identity,”34 and the bleeding statue precisely figures constructed, contingent, and vulnerable identity. Within the play, Shakespeare gives this awareness to Calphurnia alone. Calphurnia dreams of Caesar as statue because she fears for the public, monumental Caesar; yet she realizes the private Caesar's inseparability from that role, as Brutus had, at least momentarily, when he acknowledged how “Caesar must bleed for it” (2.1.171). The conspirators forget or disregard Caesar's vulnerability, granting him, with the act of assassination, the very power they fear he will seize.35 Ultimately the world of physical consequences belies the goals and ambitions of the conspirators; their monumental aspirations are revealed as ideologies of power that can disregard human identity and human life. Dreaming of the body, Calphurnia foresees such an outcome.

By attributing this dream to Calphurnia, Shakespeare suggests her independence from the linguistic order. The dream image, positing a vital interior to the public monument, uses graphic (rather than linguistic) terms to undo the opposition between Caesar and “Caesarism.” Immediately upon the translation of the dream image into words, conflicting theories of its meaning cloud the response she proposes. Decius Brutus' cunning interpretation, in which “blood” becomes a reviving substance and the wounded body a source of “tinctures, stains, relics” (2.2.88-89), illustrates the instability and danger inherent in language. Calphurnia's dream offers a model of an intuitive understanding, one presented as epistemologically prior to language, one able to acknowledge the differences that manifest another person. Validated within the play by the realization of her prophecy, Calphurnia's dream stands in essential contrast to the play's dubiously realized constructions of character as myth or political authority.

I may well be one of the first ever to suggest Calphurnia as a role model of any sort, but at least in terms of the issue of knowing other people, she seems preferable to the other Romans in Shakespeare's play. Theories of character are compromised by the poor fit between mind and body, yet Julius Caesar teaches us to eschew Brutus' lofty goal with its tragic consequence: “O that we then could come by Caesar's spirit / And not dismember Caesar! But, alas, / Caesar must bleed for it” (2.1.169-71). The play shows violence to be the inevitable if unintentional result of an attempt, like Brutus', to grasp another's spirit, or to subordinate another to one's own political vision. Attending to the theater's physical dynamic, in effect we join Calphurnia in dreaming of the body. Character, viewed as an other that is partially coextensive with the otherness within the self, is rendered a more contradictory and vulnerable proposition, since however real our dreams may be, we can never be entirely certain what they mean.


  1. Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton, 1979), p. 239. This essay originated as a seminar paper at the Shakespeare Association of America meeting in Vancouver, March 1992, and was presented at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association meeting in Atlanta, November, 1992. An earlier related paper was presented at the Patristic, Medieval, and Renaissance convention in Villanova, September 1990. Thanks to various audience members for helpful suggestions, and to Wendy Clein, David Kranz, and John Traverse for their comments on the manuscript.

  2. Roland Barthes, “The Romans in Films” in Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York, 1972), p. 26.

  3. Quotations from Shakespeare's plays refer to Alfred Harbage's Complete Works (Baltimore, 1969).

  4. In Plutarch's account Portia wounds herself and falls into a resulting fever before confronting Brutus, who is “amazed to hear” what she has done (See Shakespeare's Plutarch, ed. C. F. Tucker Brooke [New York, 1909], vol. 1, p. 127). In Shakespeare's text, Brutus' shocked response (“O ye gods”) may indicate that Portia actually wounds herself onstage, although my interpretation does not turn on this production decision. Even if Portia refrains from showing the wound (showing it would have raised interesting problems of staging in the Elizabethan theater) and simply gestures toward the site of a previous injury, she uses her body as a crucial signifier, thus setting its meanings into action on stage.

  5. Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare, ed. T. S. Dorsch (London, 1955), p. lix.

  6. Reuben A. Brower, Hero and Saint: Shakespeare and the Graeco-Roman Heroic Tradition (Oxford, 1971), p. 212.

  7. G. Wilson Knight, The Imperial Theme: Further Interpretations of Shakespeare's Tragedies Including the Roman Plays, 1931 (London, 1951), p. 72.

  8. Clifford Ronan, “Lucan and the Self-Incised Voids of Julius Caesar,Comparative Drama 22:3 (1988), 222.

  9. Robert Miola, Shakespeare's Rome (New York, 1983), p. 95.

  10. Madelon Sprengnether, “Annihilating Intimacy in Coriolanus,” in Women in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Literary and Historical Perspectives, ed. Mary Beth Rose (Syracuse, 1986), p. 96.

  11. David Kranz, private correspondence.

  12. Gail Kern Paster, “‘In the spirit of men there is no blood’: Blood as Trope of Gender in Julius Caesar,Shakespeare Quarterly 40:3 (1989), 292.

  13. M. D. Faber, “Lord Brutus' Wife: A Modern View,” Psychoanalytic Review 52 (1965-66), 109.

  14. Julia Kristeva, “Women's Time,” trans. Alice Jardine and Harry Blake, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 7:1 (1981), 28.

  15. Sigmund Freud, “Hysterical Phantasies and Their Relation to Bisexuality,” in Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (New York, 1963), p. 151; quoted by Clare Kahane, “Hysteria, Feminism, and the Case of The Bostonians,” in Feminism and Psychoanalysis, ed. Richard Feldstein and Judith Roof (Ithaca, 1989), p. 284.

  16. Charles Bernheimer, “Introduction: Part 1,” in In Dora's Case: Freud—Hysteria—Feminism, ed. Bernheimer and Kahane (New York, 1985), p. 1.

  17. Quoted by Bernheimer, p. 4.

  18. Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément, The Newly Born Woman, trans. Betsy Wing (Minneapolis, 1986), p. 95.

  19. Harold Fisch, “Character as Linguistic Sign,” New Literary History 21:3 (1990), 593-606.

  20. Alessandro Serpieri, “Reading the Signs: Towards a Semiotics of Shakespearean Drama,” trans. Keir Elam, in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (New York, 1985), p. 122.

  21. Leo Kirschbaum, “Shakespeare's Stage Blood and Its Critical Significance,” PMLA 64 (1949), 528.

  22. Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York, 1985), p. 4.

  23. Sheila Murnaghan, “Body and Voice in Greek Tragedy,” The Yale Journal of Criticism 1:2 (1988), 23.

  24. Hélène Cixous, “The Character of ‘Character,’” New Literary History 5:2 (1974), 396.

  25. Johannes Fabian, “Presence and Representation: The Other and Anthropological Writing,” Critical Inquiry 16:4 (1990), 770, 771.

  26. Herbert Blau makes a similar point in his The Audience (Baltimore, 1990). Blau objects to sympathy as that which “draws things toward each other in an affinity that wants to intensify until it is nothing but the Same, so that likeness loses its difference through an assimilative power” (p. 301), but concludes that “there is more to be said for empathy than might be deduced from the critique of psychological realism or the values of bourgeois humanism that it represents” (p. 374). He suggests that theater be considered “an extension of the body's capacity to perceive” (p. 377).

  27. Brooke, vol. 1, p. 97.

  28. Maurice Charney, Shakespeare's Roman Plays: The Function of Imagery in the Drama (Cambridge, Mass., 1961), p. 52.

  29. Charney observes that “the body plays a conspicuous role during Antony's funeral oration” (p. 52). Gayle Greene notes Antony's use of “techniques and props to supplement the verbal: the will, the bloody mantle, and the body” (“‘The Power of Speech / To Stir Men's Blood’: The Language of Tragedy in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar,Renaissance Drama 11 [1980], 86).

  30. Much here depends on staging, of course—the point at which Antony flees will determine the reliability of his account in the funeral oration.

  31. Repeatedly the play illustrates Scarry's point that the body is used “to confirm the truth of [a] verbal assertion … when there is a crisis of substantiation” (p. 127).

  32. William O. Scott, “The Speculative Eye: Problematic Self-Knowledge in ‘Julius Caesar,’” Shakespeare Survey 40 (1988), 82.

  33. In a compelling reading of Julius Caesar, James R. Siemon sees Shakespeare's treatment of the assassination as fundamentally iconoclastic in destabilizing established views of the Roman hero (Shakespearean Iconoclasm [Berkeley, 1985]). It is iconoclasm's task “to drive home the merely arbitrary status of specific symbolism” (p. 143). Siemon's argument has important ramifications for Shakespeare's treatment of historical myth, although I would argue that drama cannot in the final (theatrical) analysis be iconoclastic, since it continually offers images and dignifies them by their stage presence. Dramatic presence—the conjunction in the actor of the signified (the role) and signifier (the body)—anchors meaning inextricably to the physical realm.

  34. Ralph Berry, Shakespeare and the Awareness of the Audience (New York, 1985), p. 78.

  35. As Lynn de Gerenday puts it, “Through the assassination [the conspirators] ironically establish Caesarism, thus empowering the spirit they sought to destroy” (“Play, Ritualization, and Ambivalence in Julius Caesar,Literature and Psychology 24 [1974], 29).

Dennis Bathory (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9979

SOURCE: “‘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, Rowman & Littlefield, 1996, pp. 237-61.

[In the following essay, Bathory examines the relationship between self-knowledge and politics in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, and elucidates the affinity between Brutus's self-delusion and the collapse of the Roman Republic.]

“We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”

—William Butler Yeats

Shakespeare's challenge to Roman republicanism suggests that the political virtue upon which Rome rested was well suited to Rome's imperial foreign policy but was less well suited to its domestic politics. Honor not justice provides the political foundation of the Roman Republic. The Roman tradition had led time and again to the forging of internal peace in time of domestic crisis by going to war with a foreign enemy. This strategy, Shakespeare suggests, failed to educate either Roman leaders or citizens in the most important lessons of politics—the arts of sustaining a regime while simultaneously sustaining the virtue of its citizens. Shakespeare knew that Rome was touted as a model worthy of emulation, and he was clearly skeptical. His examination of the virtues and vices of the Roman Republic is most clear in two plays, one set at the very beginning of the Republic and one set near its demise—Coriolanus and Julius Caesar.

Julius Caesar was written first, near the end of the Elizabethan era; Coriolanus was written a decade later, at the dawn of the Jacobean era. Thus Shakespeare, not, I think, coincidentally, writes of dramatic Roman transitions in the midst of transitions equally dramatic in his own world.1 Shakespeare's sophisticated skepticism reaches to the heart of the Roman Republic as he describes the central character in Julius Caesar. “Brutus, with himself at war” (1.2.46) provides us with a remarkably contemporary look at the dilemmas of the political reformer/revolutionary.2 Shakespeare in his development first of Brutus and later of Coriolanus tells us of the danger of such internal, psychic warfare, not simply to frame the tragedy that befalls each, but to introduce as well the problems that all republican leaders have to face in times of rapid change and crisis. They have need (always, but especially in such times) of resources that Rome could not provide.

The need for solace and strength, and even more, for self-examination and self-evaluation on the part of leaders of republics in the midst of change and crisis is profoundly central to Shakespeare's stories. Confronted with the problem of republican virtue, many, including Niccolò Machiavelli, would attempt to substitute institutional arrangements for virtue as a support for the republic. For Shakespeare, Rome's lesson led to a call for a better political virtue, one based on self-reflection. Self-reflection permits a public language that introduces the possibility of accommodation among the various conflicting parts of the city. The danger in Rome, Shakespeare understood, was that, having defeated all foreign enemies, Caesar would, and Augustus did, forge Roman unity by denying Roman freedom. For Shakespeare, the person and the torment of Brutus frames the discussion. Brutus fails in his efforts to save the Republic because he does not understand the need to educate Rome to a better political virtue. Rome had offered little instruction in such education and for all his republican spirit, Brutus had little alternative save to exercise the sound but limited and ultimately self-defeating strategy of joining the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar. These powerful lessons, important for Shakespeare's audience, are no less important for contemporary audiences.

Shakespeare offers us a “mirror of republics” to replace the medieval “mirror of princes.” What is needed, he suggests, is not only a place for reflection removed from the chaos of rapidly changing public opinion, but also the means to engage in that reflection consistent with obligations to the common good. If the problem of the leader's ability to get good advice is ancient and common to all cultures, so is the problem of the leader finding time to himself to reflect. The need for self-examination even, or especially, in the face of extreme pressure, deadlines, and crises has never been more obvious. The need for leaders to confront public opinion and to offer wise counsel to those whom they lead seems to be ever more difficult. These plays address such problems and offer wisdom to our age as well as Shakespeare's. They suggest that poets and storytellers may have much to offer us as well. Western political science has always known this, but it has not always acted on what it knows. We need stories about politics, but we need to tell them to one another in ways that facilitate understanding across times and cultures.


Shakespeare's teaching about Roman politics in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus addresses the relationship between self-knowledge and political knowledge. The inability of major characters in each play to come to terms with their selves leads them to make critical, self-defeating, ultimately tragic political errors. This is particularly true of Marcus Brutus, whose role in the conspiracy against Julius Caesar masks a fundamental lack of self-knowledge, and of Coriolanus, whose lack of self-reflection leads to unthinking action that destroys his political opportunity. In each case, the Roman hero,3 as portrayed by Shakespeare, “confronts” inner turmoil or self-doubt by turning to decisive external action that masks internal tension and uncertainty.

Shakespeare thus develops in these and other characters a parallel between their personal crises and Rome's centuries-old tradition (habit) of turning to foreign warfare—both conquest and defense—to mask domestic faction. In this pattern, domestic politics was continually challenged by disorder, and order was reclaimed by the discipline required in time of war or by an emerging Roman legalism. The relationship between domestic and foreign politics was thus dominated by the foreign and external; domestic politics was left on unsure footing for the Republic and for its leaders. Shakespeare asks us to reflect on the relationship between the internal and the external through his portrayal of individual characters, who turn to the “outside” to solve their individual, internal problems. The inability of individuals to recognize the important link between self-knowledge and political knowledge leaves internal strife unaddressed and makes political life sometimes difficult, sometimes tragic, and always confused. The relationship between the internal and external—both for the individual and the state—is thus dramatized in these plays and presented as a central political problem.

Marcus Brutus, leader of the conspiracy against Julius Caesar, the “noblest Roman of them all” (5.5.68)—Brutus, “with himself at war,”—is the central political figure in Shakespeare's Roman plays.4 Well respected by Romans of all classes, Brutus reveals both the politics of Rome in crisis and Shakespeare's understanding of that politics. Yet, if this is so—and if as some have suggested, the Romans were the “greatest political people who ever lived”5—what is Shakespeare's teaching about politics, Roman and otherwise? Brutus—“with himself at war”—makes a number of critical errors of judgment and surely fails in his stated goal of saving the Republic. If “the noblest Roman of them all” could not save the Republic, then who or what could have? Had Roman republican politics run its course? Is this simple and obvious teaching the core of Shakespeare's tragedy, and, thus, of his understanding of Roman politics?6

Brutus is central to Shakespeare's teaching, but he must not be judged, simply, through Mark Antony's praise, words that must, after all, be filtered through Antony's own prism.7 Brutus's speeches provide a more apt point of departure. But, Brutus's “war” with himself is complex. To be sure, Shakespeare invites us to consider the obvious source of this psychological “war.” Torn between his loves for Caesar and Rome, Brutus reports that the reason he conspired against Caesar was “not that [he] loved Caesar less, but that [he] loved Rome more” (3.2.21-22). Resolved to overcome his personal, internal civil war, Brutus takes the lead in planning the assassination. His words frame the deed. The conspirators must be “sacrificers, but not butchers,” he counsels, so that it will be the “spirit of Caesar” that is assaulted, not his body (2.1.166-67). His self-deception will haunt him throughout the play. To save Rome he must change Rome, not just Caesar's power over Rome. His war with himself as a Roman requires a change of Rome that would, as well, require a change in Brutus. Before he can change Rome he must change himself, and before he can change himself he must “see” himself.

Shakespeare's teaching of Roman politics begins with Brutus because he understands that Brutus's confusion is Rome's. To a great extent Rome was always (at least in times of peace) with itself at war. Roman politics—both external warfare and party politics at home—depended on an understanding of conflict, latent and manifest. The failure of Shakespeare's Roman heroes to understand the subtlety of that conflict is common to both the beginning and the end of the Republic, to his portrayal of Roman politics in both Julius Caesar and Coriolanus. Coriolanus, at war with the “many-headed multitude” (2.3.15) of Rome, was equally “with himself at war.” The Roman world, in which he sought honor, had changed. Like Brutus he failed to understand the extent of the change and the need to change himself in the face of these changes. Political judgment requires, Shakespeare teaches, self-awareness. Complex and difficult under any circumstances, the Roman world made the process of self-examination even more difficult.

From its origin, recorded in myth and history, Rome's was a heterogeneous and syncretic culture.8 Incorporating different language and cultures and conflicting religious practices, Rome was from the very beginning a centrifugal society, threatening always to fly apart from the center. A turn inward—to Rome's origins, to its original disorder—was always difficult, potentially fragmenting. Roman conquest exacerbated the centrifugal tendencies making self-examination at once more difficult and more dangerous—difficult because Rome constantly changed, dangerous because it highlighted the tenuous connection any one individual had to romanitas.9 The temptation to look outward for “solace” was powerful and almost always overwhelmed an invitation to self-examination.10 The republican transitions emphasized in each play exacerbate the problem from Shakespeare's vantage point.

Through the intervention of family and friends, fellow patricians and soldiers, Shakespeare seems to urge the protagonists to look more carefully at their politics and themselves.11 All lessons about the relation of the self to the community, the noble individual to the broader res publica, fail. In part this is the result of life in the city, which must be plural, conflicting, faction ridden. The “conquest” of this disorder may be beyond human capacity. An acceptance of its limitations and an ability to work within those limits are, however, necessary. Politics is of the city, and being of the city, Brutus and Coriolanus are, willy nilly, political and must confront conflict. However, they must also understand the internal implications and reflections of that conflict.

The self in Shakespeare's Roman construction is ridden with “faction.” But how does Shakespeare suggest confronting that factional division? The alternatives are three: 1) Attempt to overcome “war” with the self by turning one's attention away from internal conflict and artificially “unifying” the self through confrontation with an external enemy. This solution, Shakespeare implies, involves the self-delusion that haunted not only Brutus and Coriolanus but Caesar, Antony, and others as well. 2) Escape internal conflict by escaping politics. That alternative—one Thomas Hobbes would promote in England later in the seventeenth century—was one that Octavius, become Caesar Augustus, would embrace in Rome. Shakespeare's coolness toward Octavius is clear in both Julius Caesar and in Antony and Cleopatra so that he seems to have rejected the Augustan alternative.12 3) Accept the enduring reality of conflict, both external and internal, and fashion an accommodation to it. This last, which Shakespeare seems to recommend, requires careful instruction and the creation of a perspective that his Roman heroes lack.

While instruction in “policy” and “process,” in rhetoric and political tactics is, of course, found within the plays, the perspective required for self-examination is that of the poet. Shakespeare addresses the problem of faction, internal and external, not to offer a solution to the Roman republican dilemma but to make his audience aware of issues that the Roman ear could not, or would not hear.


“[P]oor Brutus, with himself at war, / Forgets the shows of love to other men,” says Brutus to Cassius (1.2.46-47). He has been with Julius Caesar. Now, alone with Cassius, he is distracted. This is not, he says, due to anything that Cassius has done, but “I turn the trouble of my countenance / Merely upon myself” (1.2.38-39). The problem, as Cassius makes him understand, is that he cannot see himself, “for the eye sees not itself, / But by reflection, by some other things” (1.2.52-53). But, who or what will reveal Brutus to himself? Cassius “modestly” offers to be his “glass,” to “discover … / That of [himself] which [he] yet know[s] not of” (1.2.68-70). But Cassius's needs and those of Brutus are different and Cassius's instruction will prove wanting.

Cassius's “Epicurean” opinion offers little thoughtful “policy” to Brutus's “Stoicism” (5.1.77-106).13 Brutus steadfastly defends “honor” and the “general good,” but he wonders at Cassius: “wherefore do you hold me here so long? / What is it that you would impart to me?” (1.2.83-84). He would not, it appears, impart anything about Brutus. Cassius's “glass” reflects himself (Cassius), not Brutus. Brutus learns something of the case that Cassius puts before him. He is moved by Cassius's summary report of Caesar's ingratitude and injustice. Politically, Brutus is challenged; indeed, he says:

Brutus had rather be a villager
Than to repute himself a son of Rome
Under these hard conditions as this time
Is like to lay upon us.


But, of himself, he has learned little. The war raging inside needs a weighing of the “hard conditions” that is more thoughtful than that to which he is led by Cassius's “mirror.”

“Noble Brutus” is needed by Cassius and his words are meant to pull the “warring” parts of Brutus together in the service of the conspiracy, not to bring “peace” to Brutus's internal war, certainly not to make him “well in health” (1.3.141 and 2.1.257). Cassius is, of course, successful and Brutus's resolve delivers him “wholly” to the conspirators, though it does not make him whole. Cassius notes that “three parts of him / Is ours already,” his search for “the man entire” (1.3.154-55) is a search for an accomplice, one whose nobility will legitimate their cause; he is not concerned for Brutus's inner well-being. Brutus's malaise, all the while, grows. He compares the “state of a man” to “a little kingdom” that suffers “the nature of an insurrection” and describes his waking hours as a “hideous dream” (2.1.65, 67-69). Aware of the task that awaits he urges “smiles and affability” lest his inner turmoil betray a “monstrous visage” (2.1.81-82). But he appears focused as he directs the conspiracy and defines its spirit. There is no need to include Cicero he insists, nor to punish Mark Antony (2.1.150-61). The conspirators need not swear an “oath” among themselves, given the strength of what he calls the “even virtue of our enterprise” (2.1.114, 133). Again, they will be “sacrificers,” not “butchers.” Ironically, his recently expressed fear of Caesar—that “Th' abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins / Remorse from power”—is lost, masked in his carefully chosen, but self-deceptive words (2.1.166, 18-19).14

Theirs is a “purely” ordained enterprise, though it must be undertaken with the skills of “Roman actors.” The dilemma, as Shakespeare conveys it, is still apparent: Caesar has become Rome and Rome must be saved from itself, but will Rome consent to be “saved”? Brutus wars with Rome and against Rome as he leads the conspiracy and, so, as a noble Roman is still “with himself at war.” It is Portia who recognizes the “actor” and his “act” and “some sick offense within [his] mind” (2.1.268). She is his “glass,” the mirror he needs to reflect his discontent, to anticipate and appreciate the consequences, still unrecognized and clearly unanticipated. Portia sees what Brutus cannot or will not. Unlike Cassius who seeks to manipulate his discontent, Portia seeks the source of his “sickness.” The “right and virtue of [her] place” requires that she know his secret. Though “I am a woman,” she persists, I am “well reputed” and presumably well able to help (2.1.269, 294-95). Brutus has, however, turned his attention away from the “domestic.” Like Rome in time of crisis, this “little kingdom,” suffering from “insurrection,” turns its attention to the outside. The answer to his enduring illness, he says to Ligarius after Portia has left, is “A piece of work that will make sick men whole” (2.1.327). But, like Rome's centuries-old politics, the turn to external warfare leaves internal conflict unresolved. Brutus's anxiety reemerges as he meets with Caesar and the final pieces of the conspiracy are assembled. Caesar compels Brutus to consider the full scope of his role as a “Roman actor.” “We (like friends) will straightway go together,” says Caesar to the conspirators (2.2.126). Brutus, uneasy with his deception, replies in an aside: “That every like is not the same, O Caesar, / The heart of Brutus yearns to think upon” (2.2.128-29). But little thought is given. Shakespeare makes it clear that Brutus's only true “mirror,” Portia, with “a man's mind, but a woman's might,” is unable to encourage Brutus's self-examination (2.4.8).

The result is self-delusion as Shakespeare reveals in act 3, scene 2. The assassination plot accomplished, Brutus turns to the plebeians gathered in the forum. Restless, they await explanation of the murder of the man to whom they would, so recently, have given a crown. Brutus's eloquence marks both his position and his naiveté (as well as Shakespeare's poetic genius as he sets up Antony's speech to follow). It is “not that I loved Caesar less,” he says, “but that I loved Rome more” (3.2.21-22). For a moment the crowd is appeased, but Brutus has sorely overestimated them. They do not share his “nobility,” as Antony's ironic defense of Caesar's “ambitions” makes clear. He cleverly appeals to the greedy “ambitions” of an audience he knows far better than Brutus does. Whipped into a frenzy with promises of a “rich legacy” bequeathed to them by Caesar, the crowd is quickly turned against Brutus. The task of Brutus and the conspirators was far greater than the “mere” assassination of Caesar.

Caesar's “spirit” had a monetary value far greater to this Roman audience than Brutus's noble sentiments about Rome and Roman freedom. It was this “spirit,” which Brutus obviously did not anticipate and apparently did not understand, that threatened Rome as surely as Caesar's impending dictatorship. The question for the conspirators, for Rome, for Shakespeare and for Shakespeare's audience was the same: How to conquer that “spirit”? Brutus was right to say that it was the “spirit” of Caesar that had to be conquered (2.1.167), but the “spirit” of the people in the streets of Rome was as well a product of Caesar's “spirit.” The task of the Roman republican patriot was to educate or reeducate the people of Rome. Brutus's internal warfare blinded him to the most important challenge to his Roman nobility—the education of the Roman citizenry in the face of the changes that were, indeed, threatening the Republic that he loved. Whether or not such education was possible in the Rome of his day is less the issue than his blindness to the need for it. In a world in which foreign war could less easily provide either a common enemy around which warring domestic factions could coalesce or the booty with which to bribe the audience of Brutus and Antony, such education was necessary for the continuation of the Republic. Brutus's story is the story of Rome. Brutus is at war with himself because he fails to understand the proper nature of the relation between the parts of the community—both the community of the soul and the community of the city. He requires an understanding of both, if he is to be an effective republican leader.

Shakespeare urges us to consider the parallel between Brutus's internal war and Rome's—both turn to the outside but leave the sources of internal conflict unresolved. The result, as Jan Blits points out, is a “conception of the common good [of Rome which] lacks a public or republican spirit.”15 Shakespeare invites us to pass judgment on this shortsightedness both in Julius Caesar, and ten years later, when he turned to the beginning of the Republic in Coriolanus.


In turning to the beginning of the Republic in the Tragedy of Coriolanus Shakespeare continues his examination of Roman politics with a study of another major transition. The Republic is in its infancy, the tribunate only recently created. Caius Martius (Coriolanus), a heroic figure in the overthrow of Tarquin's tyranny, confronts the transition, as Brutus did his, with confusion and uncertainty. Again this is a world with itself at war. Most obviously, the plebeians are upset with the patricians. A shortage of corn has exposed class distinctions, differences that for the plebs are most clearly represented by the arrogance of Caius Martius (Coriolanus) (1.1). Yet, Caius Martius's role in the overthrow of tyranny has made the Republic possible in the first place, and the citizens know this. More, they understand the gratitude they owe him. He has only to recognize the changes in Rome and the “honor” that he craves will be granted, for, they understand, “there was never a worthier man” (2.3.36-37).

As with Brutus,16 the problem for Coriolanus lies not only with understanding Rome's transformations but also how those changes affect him. As Rome's upheavals in the reign of Julius Caesar required Brutus to reexamine his very “self,” so Rome's changes in the early days of the Republic required the same of Coriolanus.

A “worthy” man whose “chiefest virtue” is “valor,” Coriolanus is a hero “by his rare example,” even a man of generous spirit (2.2.35, 81-85, 102; 1.9.82-86).17 He shuns flattery—both as flattered and flatterer. He resists the new “custom” that requires that he “speak to the people” (2.2.133), if he would be consul. He asks that he might “o'erleap that custom” (2.2.134) rightly fearing, as Shakespeare plays it out, that the public is fickle and easily manipulated. More, he articulates a suspicion of custom itself, which left unexamined can, like “the dust on antique time,” lie “unswept” and leave a “mountainous error … too highly heaped / For truth t' o'erpeer” (2.3.114-16). Ironically though, it is the very dust of an older custom, patrician custom, that Coriolanus cannot himself “o'erpeer.”

Rome has changed; it will not do to return to still older customs, especially, if he “would be consul” (2.3.126). He recognizes the danger of a political order without “purpose” (3.1.148-49), an order manipulated by the winds of public opinion that “With every minute … do change a mind” (1.1.177). Yet, if he would lead the new Rome, he must look inside himself and discover new resources required for a new political order. To do so, however, he, like Brutus, will need assistance.18

Shakespeare gives Coriolanus three “mirrors”: Menenius, patrician and friend to Coriolanus; his wife, Virgilia; and, most crucially, his mother, Volumnia. None of these, however, is able to bring him face to face with himself. Menenius's teasing (and sometimes effective) rhetoric preaches “patience” to both plebeians and tribunes. His “fable,” a variation on the medieval organic analogy, cleverly sets the plebeians to consider the difficulty the Senate has in meeting the needs of the “weal o' th' common” (1.1.146). His tale is at least in part successful. With words carefully crafted for their ears, he convinces the plebeians that the Senate, the “belly” in his unusual account, looks out for their interests, distributing goods even to “the great toe of this assembly” (1.1.150). It is the tribunes, however, that are his real concern. Again, his use of words is important both for his audience and Shakespeare's. He confronts the two tribunes, Sicinius and Junius Brutus, directly. Their power, though derivative, is great. Their “pride,” however, masks “infant-like” behavior. In fact, he says, “you know neither me, yourselves, nor anything” (2.1.34-37, 62-63), and this is precisely why they are dangerous.

Menenius himself knows a great deal. Through his rhetoric he conveys and uses his knowledge to significant effect. His effectiveness is, however, limited by his position. Though his audiences respect him, he is not destined for leadership. Coriolanus's “valor,” his “chiefest virtue,” has made him ripe for “honor” and so for the position of leadership the Senate seeks to convey. Menenius is a shrewd analyst and has the tools, as Coriolanus's friend, to be an excellent counselor, but Coriolanus must first learn to listen. This, for all Menenius's skill, he apparently cannot teach. Menenius is direct in his counsel: “… go fit you to the custom and / Take to you, as your predecessors have, / Your honor with your form” (2.2.140-42).

Coriolanus will not or cannot hear him. Incapable of a “gentler spirit” Coriolanus rages at the tribunes. “Not now, not now,” Menenius urges, but Coriolanus does not listen (3.1.55, 63). Failing at directly influencing him, Menenius will turn his rhetorical skills back directly against Coriolanus's antagonists. He pleads with the tribunes to “proceed by process” (3.1.313), lest they threaten the very Rome they claim to serve:

Lo, citizens, he says he is content.
The warlike service he has done, consider; think
Upon the wounds his body bears, which show
Like graves i' th' holy churchyard.


Coriolanus's petulance continues and so prompts Menenius:

                                                  Consider further,
That when he speaks not like a citizen,
You find him like a soldier. Do not take
His rougher accents for malicious sounds,
But, as I say, such as become a soldier,
Rather than envy you.


But the game is lost, for it is Coriolanus whom Menenius must engage. He cannot overpower Coriolanus's antagonists without Coriolanus's assistance, and that assistance cannot be forthcoming until Coriolanus confronts himself. But Coriolanus's pride will not permit him. Rather, his own flagrant, violent use of words deafens Coriolanus to his friend's plea. Instead, the self-destructive nature of his language ironically leads a senator to beseech: “No more words” (3.1.75).

In need of words to claim his honor, in need of words to know Rome, and in need of words to know himself, Coriolanus is instead conquered by his own “deeds.” Words “debase / The nature of our seats,” he says, when “deeds” should “speak” for themselves. (3.1.135-36). His understanding of the Roman world is based on “deeds.” The plebeians and their tribunes are portrayed as incapable of such “deeds” and thus must have recourse to words—words that, for Coriolanus, merely flatter and deceive. To be sure, words can flatter and deceive and Shakespeare gives us many examples in this play. But words can also instruct and reveal. Coriolanus has not been taught this wiser use of words. In the Roman fashion he lets action speak for itself.

Rome defines itself in large part externally. Roman heroes like Brutus's “little kingdoms” define themselves externally as well.19 The domestic “mirrors” of Caius Martius Coriolanus, like those of Brutus, are unsuccessful in their attempts to bring him face to face with himself. His wife and mother are no more able to instruct Coriolanus than was Menenius. Virgilia's traditional support of her husband reinforces all of his intransigence. Her role is to “support” him. She tells Volumnia that she will “not over the threshold till my lord return from the wars” (1.2.71-72). Her “affection” will never turn him in on himself. Her “lord and husband” is distant. She supports him but primarily “to keep [his] name / Living to time” through the son she bore him (5.3.37, 126-27).20 His mother is another story.

In some ways Coriolanus is as much Volumnia's creation as he is Rome's. She taught him to “seek danger where he was like to find fame” (1.3.12-13). When he returns from battle with the Volscians, she proudly asserts: “O, he is wounded; I thank the gods for't” (2.1.113). She wants him to have fame, honor and power, but she has done her work too well. His pride in all of its excess is, in part, her creation as well. His anger, uncontrolled, lacks her “brain that leads [her] use of anger / To better vantage” (3.2.30-31). She rebukes him for being “too absolute” and counsels a combination of “honor and policy” (39, 42). He has understood that deception is necessary in time of war; she says to him:

If it be honor in your wars to seem
The same you are not …
                    how is it less or worse,
That it shall hold companionship in peace
With honor, as in war. …


How indeed? If those he addresses in peacetime in Rome are, like his enemies in war, deceived, then they are like his enemies. Yet, they are by the new “custom” a part of Rome and so to war with them is to war with Rome and for Coriolanus to war with himself. However debased they may be, however contemptible, they cannot be deceived as one would deceive an enemy in war.22

Volumnia's advice to combine “honor and policy” is, in general, not dissimilar from that of Menenius. In its particulars, however, it is quite different. Menenius's fable creates a space for discussion of the Senate's concern for the common good. Volumnia's analogy implies civil war. Shakespeare quickly helps us to understand the source of her problem. She too prefers “deeds” over words. “Action is eloquence,” she proclaims, “and the eyes of th' ignorant / More learned than the ears …” (3.2.76-77). Hers is not an effort to return to the organic analogy of Menenius's fable, but rather to describe a pestilence to be overcome. They are his “enemy,” these common people of Rome. The only difference between them and Aufidius is that they must be flattered.23 None of this counsel will Coriolanus hear, however, perhaps because he is too proud, perhaps because her words have been preceded by action that render them meaningless. Of the latter we can only guess, though we are later shown his reaction to his mother's action as she kneels to her now traitorous son. That she finally reaches him is clear:

                                                  What is this?
Your knees to me? to your corrected son?
Then let the pebbles on the hungry beach
Fillip the stars! Then let the mutinous winds
Strike the proud cedars 'gainst the fiery sun,
Murd'ring impossibility, to make
What cannot be, slight work.


She responds: “Thou art my warrior; / I holp to frame thee” (5.3.62-63). She has helped create a “warrior” but not a consul of Rome. Volumnia's Coriolanus lacks “purpose” save that which demands enemies and this, Shakespeare teaches, is a long-standing Roman dilemma that makes domestic politics and peace difficult.

Republican Rome can be governed neither by Coriolanus's arrogance nor by the people's “multitudinous tongue.” When they stand in opposition to one another, their mutual impotence is apparent and, more, the manipulative tribunate is empowered. How then is that manipulation to be quelled? In the first place, given the fact that Rome is changing, Rome's past has to be accommodated to the new reality of the Republic and so there must be a new foundation for public authority. In this story Coriolanus becomes a representative of that past and stories of his exploits and ancestors are central to the political story that Shakespeare tells. First, Cominius, his commanding general who has named him in honor of his conquest of Corioli, speaks of Coriolanus's “deeds,” of his “rare example” in fighting the tyranny of Tarquin (2.2.102). Praised as someone who in defeating Tarquin helped give rise to the Republic, his action at Corioli only confirms prior deeds and makes him clearly worthy of the consulship. In the very next scene, his recent exploits now ignored, the tribunes portray him in contrast to his illustrious ancestors (2.3.233-40). As Shakespeare plays the scene, arrogance is pitted against ignorance, and the tribunes, at least for the moment, emerge victorious.

Sicinius and Junius Brutus at once commend Coriolanus's heritage and condemn the pride that is “descended” from that very same lineage.24 Still, their audience is beguiled, the tribunes' message has been artfully delivered. They have at once praised the past25 (of which their Roman clients are proud) and attacked its progeny. Coriolanus is attacked as a representative of the patrician class even as that class is apparently, implicitly praised. The result for Rome is confusion, the very coin of the tribunate in this play, and the perpetuation of the world without “purpose” that Coriolanus will soon criticize.26 But the tribunes' words have hit their mark. The citizens change their mind again, confirming both Coriolanus's analysis and the tribunes' power.

Coriolanus's republican successors will have to find their way among these portrayals of Rome's past, holding on to that which still defines Rome, while still learning to “o'erpeer” the past and the “antique dust” that clings to it. The purpose of Rome is not as easily identified as it might seem to be. It is surely beyond Virgilia's domestic support for her warrior, and Volumnia's apparent move beyond Virgilia's traditionalism does not offer the “foundation” that is needed. Moreover, republican institutions, Shakespeare insinuates, require more than Cominius's love of “valor.” The question that must be asked is the republican question: What is the city? The tribunes respond too easily, “the people,” but that begs the question, for the people are clearly muddled, in need of leadership and education (1.1. and 2.3). The tribunes manipulate and in turn risk being outmanipulated, for they manipulate without “purpose.” Coriolanus cannot learn from any of these “teachers,” but his successors must, if they are to be the definers of the broad “public weal” Rome requires.27

The dilemma is that the “public weal” will continue to be founded in part on the virtue of men like Coriolanus. The heroic ideal is still critical.28 The hero stands for Roman honor and represents romanitas; but heroic action is by definition rare and exceptional, distant from ordinary citizens, whose participation in the “spirit” of Rome is generally vicarious, distant, and indirect. The problem for the Republic then is always to find leaders whose stature helps redefine romanitas while still making contact with the people whose greater good and glory they must represent. Such leaders must, Shakespeare seems to suggest, confront warfare—not simply warfare with external enemies, not simply the “warfare” among Roman factions in time of peace, but also the “warfare” within.29 Rome's republicanism dictates that each of these battles continues.30

Rome artfully used external warfare to forge internal unity throughout the republican era. Shakespeare frames this practice from the earliest scenes of Coriolanus to the end of the Republic and Julius Caesar. Caius Martius applauds the Volscian threat to Rome: “I am glad on 't. / Then we shall ha' means to vent / Our musty superfluity” (1.1.220-21). Julius Caesar's Rome, on the other hand, has nearly used up this strategy.31 The factional politics of the age of Caesar were not overcome by Caesar's military victories; quite the contrary.32 Caesar's conquering majesty makes recourse to external war superfluous and unavailable; his subjection of the external “world” eliminates the “vent,” which Coriolanus and many of those who followed used with great success. Lacking that vent, the “superfluities” of Roman internal politics explode. The dilemma for Marcus Brutus, Cassius, and their fellow conspirators is on one level not unlike that which Volumnia describes to her son. They, too, must combine “honor and policy.” “Process” and “policy” are required, Menenius says, “lest parties … break out / And sack great Rome with Romans” (3.1.313-14). And from the very beginning of Julius Caesar, it is clear that this very problem is infecting Julius Caesar's Rome.

Several questions remain unaddressed by the Romans whether early or late in the Republic: Is shrewd political calculation enough? If it is, where will it come from, who will offer it? Of what does this calculation and advice consist? Menenius attempts to persuade his friend, but Coriolanus remains “untaught.”33 Coriolanus knows himself only in the “Senate House” (2.3.143). His mother's advice would, he says, have him be “false to [his] nature” (3.2.15). Similarly, Brutus cannot hear Portia. “Honor and policy” do not easily combine in domestic politics. Brutus's lack of “policy” is in its way, as glaring as Coriolanus's, though again Shakespeare points to a more basic dilemma. Perhaps, having killed Antony in the plot would have aided the conspirators' “purpose”34 (3.2.147); perhaps, Cicero's oratory would have helped their cause. Shakespeare hints at both possibilities, but the fundamental problem lies elsewhere: The city requires more than “honor and policy.” The pride that both accompanies honor and leads to it makes the proud and honorable reluctant to engage in “policy” and disdainful of “process.” Indeed, the proud and honorable are not predisposed by “nature,” Shakespeare suggests, to “policy” and “process” within the city. The justness of their common cause leads time and again to honorable victory over external enemies. Justice, within the city and in the soul of the Roman hero, is, however, more difficult to discover.

Times of crisis such as those portrayed in both plays merely emphasize problems endemic to the Roman republican world. With themselves at war, Shakespeare's Roman heroes find tragic ends. Merely to adapt, cunningly, to the times is inadequate. As Aufidius ironically notes, “Our virtues lie / In th' interpretation of the time” (4.7.49-50). The virtue of Shakespeare's Roman hero is not well suited to peacetime. Honor, not justice, is the hallmark of Rome. Coriolanus's crudeness would be cosmetically hidden; Roman leaders would learn to flatter and be flattered, but they would not come to know themselves as leaders of the Roman public in peacetime. Rome could not teach these lessons; Shakespeare could and did.

The citizens of Rome, both at the beginning and at the end of the Republic, required more than flattery. Republican virtue could be manipulated, even subverted, by rhetoric's flattery. Coriolanus was right to be suspicious.35 It is, however, one thing to be aware of the limits, and even the corrupting dangers, of rhetoric and another to dismiss the Roman public because of its need to flatter and be flattered. Shakespeare understands that rhetoric is needed to make contact with that public—to educate it as well as to manipulate it. He knew of the temptation to misuse rhetoric and explored the narrow line between education and manipulation. He suggested that the leader must proceed with great caution or risk his own undoing. Neither Brutus nor Coriolanus understood the self-defeating consequences of their “deeds.” At war with themselves they were unable to establish a relationship with Rome that successful leadership required. Neither flatterers nor educators, their political efforts were destined to fail.

The Roman military-political strategy was a brilliant one, enduring for centuries; but Roman politics was, as Shakespeare's Roman plays invite us to consider, radically incomplete. The Roman hero at once contributed to that incompleteness, was a victim of it, and was symptomatic of a broader Roman political dilemma. With deeds that turned attention away from internal strains, the hero unwittingly lets those strains fester, offering a powerful palliative—but a palliative nonetheless. Also victimized by his very distance, the Roman hero had both to be an exceptional individual and to subordinate himself to the greater good of the Republic, which included, throughout the Republic's long history, an appeal to those intimidated by and often jealous of his “deeds.” In the end Shakespeare insinuates a tragedy beyond that of his hero. Rome itself is the victim, for republican Rome, defined by the hero, is defeated by the hero's success—the success of Julius Caesar. The problem is constant: the force of the “lion's” honor can only be masked, cosmetically hidden, by the “fox-like” cunning of “policy.” The combination of the lion and the fox is, for Shakespeare, incomplete. It is not enough for Coriolanus to learn to be cunning, nor for Brutus to learn political tactics. The greatness of the Romans reveals lessons that only the philosopher or the poet can complete. The Romans lacked both philosophic and poetic spirit. There was little room for either in their public world.

Shakespeare offers to his England, and perforce to us, what seemingly could not be offered to Rome. What Portia could not accomplish with Brutus, what Menenius and Volumnia lacked the capacity to convey to Coriolanus, Shakespeare introduced to his English audiences. Shakespeare thus becomes a mirror for an audience he hopes will look into its own “eye” as it learns to listen to words that counsel self-examination.


Shakespeare's language is in some ways an antidote to republican Rome's self-destructive words. Stephen Coote argues that in Coriolanus “language—which should be the bond of civil community—has been used as an instrument to tear it apart.”36 Shakespeare's brief is for more than “policy” and “process” and the rhetoric they require. The people, whose corruption is the key to these plays, require more than the palliative of Menenius's fable. Still in need of education at the close of the Republic, the Romans are unable to hear either their tribunes or Marcus Brutus. They listen to Mark Antony's artful deception, but his rhetoric lacks the requisite nobility, at least insofar as that “nobility” is meant to create “the bond of the civil community.”37

The modern state, following Machiavelli's lead, lowered the stakes of honor and raised “policy” to new heights. Shakespeare resists the shift even as he criticized the excesses of “honor.” It was never enough simply to temper the “lion's” honor with the “fox's” cunning. Shakespeare does not applaud Octavius's Roman solution. Shakespeare presents Caesar Augustus, Bloom writes, as a man who was “no hero [but] a dry opportunist with the capacity for neither loving nor fighting.”38 Whatever his success in Rome, Octavius gets no commendation from Shakespeare. It is, of course, Octavius who puts Brutus's nobility in perspective when, immediately following Antony's praise of the “noblest Roman of them all,” Octavius closes the play by replying: “According to his virtue let us use him …” (5.5.76). New modes and orders were introduced by Caesar Augustus, but they are not endorsed by Shakespeare. As the “stillness of the Augustan peace” approaches, Shakespeare reveals, as Michael Platt has argued, a world “as stale and motionless as a ‘gilded puddle.”’39

For Shakespeare's own more positive message, we must return to Aufidius's reminder that “our virtues / Lie in th' interpretation of the time …” (4.7.49-50). Shakespeare would have his audience reexamine Roman republicanism in order to reevaluate it on its own terms and theirs. Rome's was a great politics, but it was a politics that absorbed itself. Fatally limited, its example taught lessons crucial to late Elizabethan and early Jacobean audiences. Coriolanus, Shakespeare's last tragedy, addresses an audience well aware of the advantages and of the difficulties of “mixed government.”40 This was, however, an audience undergoing profound social changes, and Shakespeare's teaching reminds them subtly of the way in which they might evaluate the “virtues” appropriate to their “time.”

Shakespeare's use of Roman history for this purpose is in sharp contrast to that of his Renaissance predecessor, Niccolò Machiavelli. Shakespeare offers a searching treatment of “antique Rome,” but his “purpose” was quite different from that of Machiavelli. Though confronted with republican ideas, Shakespeare is not an uncritical republican enthusiast.41 By the time he wrote Coriolanus he had begun to hear of James I's unflattering descriptions of puritans as “Tribunes of the people.”42 Yet Shakespeare's Roman plays cannot be labeled defenses of monarchy—Roman, “divine right,” or otherwise. Not a “modern” in the sense that he believed that significant progress in the human condition was either immanent or for that matter possible, not a republican after the fashion of Rome or Machiavelli, Shakespeare nonetheless offers counsel to an audience for whom republican images would be increasingly important. Bloom has argued that, “Shakespeare indicates that he himself possesses a spirit of acceptance. That is the way things are, and there is no hope of reforming humanity.”43 Still, his treatment of Roman republicanism is critical for the education of his audience and for others to follow.

If, as Bloom further suggests, Shakespeare's Roman hero stands out as a “public example of virtue … necessary for civil society,”44 that example must convey its “virtue” to the “public.” For Shakespeare the vehicle for the conveyance of public honor in Rome was complex and ambiguous, an uncertain model for his world (and so it remains). Still, for all his skepticism, his is not a Hobbesian rejection of politics. Though his audience and that of Thomas Hobbes nearly overlap, Shakespeare's analyses both of human nature and politics are far less dire. To be sure, violence is everywhere apparent in Shakespeare's republican Rome. Indeed, one might argue that the rise of Octavius is in part the result of the very exhaustion that Hobbes postulates as the result of the “fear of (violent) death.”45 A ruler, like Octavius, who in many ways relieves Romans of their political obligations and imposed a dry but effective Roman peace46 on their heretofore chaotic and violent existence does, in fact, have a strikingly Hobbesian “countenance.” Shakespeare seems, however, unwilling to settle for, let alone to advocate, such an undignified end to political virtue. Roman virtue created problems for Shakespeare's Roman hero not so much because political virtue and politics generally are dangerous but because they revealed particular weaknesses that Rome could not overcome. And Roman failure, Shakespeare hoped, might provide for English political education.47

In his way, Shakespeare is as devious in his teaching about Rome as Machiavelli but his “purpose” is quite different. Unlike Shakespeare's, Machiavelli's lessons were not, in the first instance, directed at the soul of the audience. On the contrary, Machiavelli seeks to promote “policy” and “process” in ways that avoid self-examination. He develops, as a recent commentator has suggested, a politics based on the “calculating deference and sensational performance of the elected official who relishes the opportunity to advance his ambitions. …”48 Machiavelli's politics is in the end an “institutional politics,” which “relies on institutions rather than virtue.”49 This offers a sharp contrast indeed with the renewal afforded Rome by the virtuous actions of its exceptional individuals.50

This was a more subversive “policy” than Shakespeare could accept. For Shakespeare, the inadequacy of Roman virtue rightly learned, pointed to a better understanding of political virtue and its limits, and especially, to the necessity of self-reflection. In Shakespeare's teaching, the soul remains at the center of politics. He invites us to reconsider the relationship between self-knowledge and political knowledge in at least three ways. In the simplest sense internal conflict can fog political judgment and lead to rash, self-defeating, even tragic decisions. In a second, and more complex case, when internal conflicts are directly related to political conflicts as is the case with both Brutus and Coriolanus, the possibilities for confusion and imprudence are greater. Finally, if internal conflicts are symptomatic of broader political problems (as again seems to be the case in these plays) the danger is even greater. In this situation one finds a repression of the internal and domestic. The internal is private and secondary in this more extreme rendering, and so is all the more difficult to confront; soulful reflection is a sign of “weakness” and, therefore, rejected out of hand, no matter how necessary and therapeutic it may be. Shakespeare's message is clear. Look at yourself and see what your “external” actions reflect of that self. Avoid, thereby, some of the unseen, unanticipated, and unintended consequences of action carried out for its own sake or action carried out to avoid other more painful, more private reflection.51 Not as optimistic as Machiavelli, Shakespeare had no new science, but his poetry offered an enduring way of examining the challenges and changes of political life.

William Butler Yeats said that “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” Unable to fathom the quarrel within themselves, poetry was unavailable to most Romans of the republican era.52 Rome's alternative—rhetoric—was obvious, for Rome's quarrels were defined externally, they were with “others.” Not of themselves aware, they were destined to be “with [themselves] at war.” Shakespeare provided a “mirror” to his audience with his Roman plays, a “mirror of republics” that was in its way a successor to the “mirror of princes.”53


  1. Paul Cantor stresses the importance of these transitions in Shakespeare's Rome: Republic and Empire (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1976), 12.

  2. Quotations to the plays are drawn from Alfred Harbage, ed., William Shakespeare: The Complete Works (New York: The Viking Press, 1977).

  3. See, for example, Jan H. Blits, The End of the Ancient Republic (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1993), 73 for a discussion of Shakespeare's concern with Roman heroes and heroism.

  4. Michael Platt, Rome and Romans According to Shakespeare (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1983), 204-5.

  5. Allan Bloom makes this point in “The Morality of the Pagan Hero,” in Shakespeare's Politics (New York: Basic Books, 1964), 78.

  6. The self-consuming nature of Roman republican politics has been the subject of many commentaries on this play: both Bloom and Platt make a strong case in this regard. J. G. A. Pocock finds a civic virtue in Rome that is strikingly different from that which Shakespeare discusses (The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Republican Tradition [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975]).

  7. Antony's rhetoric is dominating but his motives are mixed at best. His manipulation of the people of Rome, far from “noble,” his manipulation of the Roman political scene in the months and years that follow suggest a person whose judgment is often faulty. This is not to say that Brutus's nobility is called into question, but that its full scope is not revealed by Antony.

  8. See, for example, Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor, 1956).

  9. Roman culture, of course, demanded that the self and Rome be closely identified. See, for example, Stephen Coote, Coriolanus (London: Penguin Books, 1992). For Shakespeare, the problem was that the “self” revealed in Rome was far too limited.

  10. The failures of Portia, Calpurnia, and Volumnia to counsel Brutus, Caesar, and Coriolanus are indicative.

  11. Shakespeare does not use these interventions to counsel either noble Roman to be at “peace” with himself. He understood that service to the city necessitated uncertainty, even turmoil. Indeed, to be utterly at peace would, for Shakespeare, seem to require separation from the city and so would in a sense be seditious. Shakespeare's counsel is not seditious. On the contrary, he seeks sound political judgment. Such judgment requires, for Shakespeare, knowledge of both political circumstances and of the self. Brutus's failure to examine more fully his internal conflict leads him to a series of poor political judgments. Most significantly, he misjudges the Roman people and so fails them as a leader and a patriot.

    A more careful self-examination would surely not have brought him peace, but might have permitted him to understand better than he did the complex interaction between political knowledge and knowledge of the self. This would be a problem not only for Brutus but for Coriolanus, Caesar, and Mark Antony as well. Indeed, it may be a problem endemic to Rome, symptomatic of Rome's internal crises. Shakespeare warns that self-knowledge must precede political knowledge, and so, effective political leadership.

  12. See Cantor, Shakespeare's Rome, 204.

  13. See David Lowenthal, “Shakespeare's Caesar's Plan,” Interpretation 10 (1982) for a discussion of the Epicureanism and Stoicism of Brutus and Cassius.

  14. Brutus is unaware of his own great power in these circumstances and so “disjoins” power from remorse, though in a manner quite different from Caesar's.

  15. See Blits, Ancient Republic, 51ff.

  16. Of course, the worlds of Brutus and Coriolanus are dramatically different. The tribunate, for example, greedy and self-serving in Coriolanus, are thoughtful and public spirited in the beginning of Julius Caesar (see Bloom, “Pagan Hero,” 82). But, for all of the differences, Shakespeare still draws our attention to a set of common underlying themes.

  17. His generosity, however, is limited. He forgets the name of the man of Corioli whom he would save.

  18. See Blits, Ancient Republic, 3-20. See also Wilson Carey McWilliams, “Lyndon Johnson and the Politics of Mass Society,” in Leadership in America: Consensus, Corruption and Charisma, ed. P. D. Bathory (New York: Longman, 1978), 190-91. McWilliams discusses friendship and the lack of friendship as a central component in the understanding of American political leadership, especially in the presidency of Lyndon Johnson.

  19. Indeed, in the very scene in which Coriolanus rages about “deeds” and “words” he receives news of Aufidius. “Spoke he of me,” asks Coriolanus (3.1.127). He apparently defines himself not only by his martial actions but also, ironically, through and by his opponents' words. A turn inside, a meeting with himself may be unnecessary in such a situation; perhaps it is even dangerous.

  20. There is none of the support of the sort that Portia gives, or attempts to give, Brutus. Emphasis supplied.

  21. Emphasis supplied.

  22. The danger here is crucial and that Volumnia does not recognize it any more clearly than her son is telling in Shakespeare's political story.

    On the relation between “war” and domestic politics see Arlene Saxonhouse, “An Unspoken Theme in Plato's Gorgias: War,” Interpretation 11 (May 1983): 139-69. Saxonhouse argues that in this dialogue Callicles looks outside the city to relations between cities and the inclination to war among states as a model that he will use to justify the actions he would like to take within the city. That action is based on a “law of nature,” which justifies inequality. In some ways the Roman “way” is similar to that of Callicles, though it is clothed in rhetoric that masks its true intention.

  23. Coriolanus will soon flatter Aufidius, however, as his treachery begins. Ironically, this comes more easily than flattery of his own Romans. The Gorgias, again, provides an important point of reference, as Socrates' discussion of rhetoric and its reliance on flattery serves as an interesting complement to Shakespeare's analysis of Coriolanus.

  24. As a descendant of Numa, however, Coriolanus can hardly be expected to bow to the plebeians with abject flattery.

  25. This is presumably important to the Roman identity of these people whom Coriolanus earlier describes as liking neither “war nor peace,” the one making them afraid, the other proud (1.1.175).

  26. The people had forgotten the advice of the tribunes—the lessons they had been taught about Coriolanus's insolence—and have accepted Coriolanus as consul. The tribunes here try, successfully, to undo the “damage.” Again the difference between the tribunate here and in Julius Caesar is considerable.

  27. The danger here is much like that discussed by Plato in the Gorgias. Relying solely on rhetorical manipulation and “flattery,” the tribunes risk being outmanipulated by a better rhetorician. Compare, for example, Julius Caesar, act 3, scene 2, and Antony's speech to the people of Rome.

  28. Coote commenting on Coriolanus's conquest of Corioli suggests: “The stature of the hero and his worth to the community could hardly be made more nobly clear. The reappearance of the living Martius, covered in blood and fighting the enemy, is thereby made all the more amazing and welcome. Communal joy raises new energies and we are presented with a … vivid military encounter: ‘They fight, and all enter the city.’ Rome and romanitas have triumphed.”

  29. Of course, such warfare is defining of Roman republican history, however, and continues throughout to be the setting for Roman honor and heroism. See also Cantor, Shakespeare's Rome, 72-98 for a fascinating discussion of Coriolanus's understanding of republican politics and his reluctance to participate in it.

  30. Compare Platt, Rome and Romans, 53, for a slightly different take on this issue.

  31. Bloom, “Pagan Hero,” 79.

  32. See, for example, Lily Ross Taylor, Party Politics in the Age of Caesar (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961).

  33. Quoted in Coote, Coriolanus, 18.

  34. The lack of “purpose” is as important in Julius Caesar as it is in Coriolanus, at least insofar as unanticipated and unintended consequences occur in each, consequences that could have been planned for.

  35. See Antony's speech in Julius Caesar, act 3, scene 2 and Plato's Gorgias.

  36. Coote argues that it is only Coriolanus whose “native language” preserves “the ideal of a speech in which language and intention are one” (Coriolanus, 55). The problem is, of course, with Coriolanus's intention, and that problem, Shakespeare wants us to understand, is not simply a matter of the lack of “temperance” of the early Republic. Though the price of “civil survival” may have been “compromise, dishonesty and deceitful language,” as Coote says, Shakespeare sees another problem.

  37. Coote, Coriolanus, 55.

  38. Bloom, “Pagan Hero,” 79.

  39. Platt, Rome and Romans, 313.

  40. C. C. Huffman charts the course of these plays and understands Coriolanus to represent a return by Shakespeare “to an overtly political concern” last raised a decade earlier in Julius Caesar (C. C. Huffman, Coriolanus in Context [Lewisburg, Penn.: Bucknell University Press], 170). As before, he asserts: “Shakespeare relied on the more cultivated to use their knowledge of a wide range of political opinion, made possible by contact with the classics and with Italy, to consider the dramatized situation and the normative standards for civic virtue which the play proposes. If honored, they would yield continued honorable political and moral existence.”

  41. Platt, Rome and Romans, 313.

  42. Huffman, Coriolanus in Context, 74.

  43. Bloom, “Pagan Hero,” 84.

  44. Bloom, “Pagan Hero,” 103.

  45. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1960), 83ff.

  46. Hobbes, Leviathan, 112.

  47. The standpoint of the poet was unavailable to the Roman hero because he could not look inside. The poet might, however, make the lessons of his virtue and his vices available to Elizabethan England and to us.

  48. Harvey Mansfield, Jr., Machiavelli's New Modes and Orders (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979), 301.

  49. Mansfield, New Modes and Orders, 301. See Niccolò Machiavelli, The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy (New York: The Modern Library, 1950), 297-302. In the process Machiavelli solves the problem that would nag Hobbes. Machiavelli moves beyond the need of the fear of violent death by reintroducing, via sensational punishments “every ten years,” a memory of that anxiety that made the Leviathan state possible and attractive in the first place.

  50. My colleague Carey McWilliams reminds me that for Machiavelli the prince's only real concern should be war and that Machiavelli's doctrine suggests that foreign policy is a matter of external conflicts, at least in the first instance. Shakespeare, in my account, returns to the classical view that domestic politics and the soul have at least equal primacy.

  51. If, like Plato, Shakespeare is investigating the self and politics as “mirrors” for one another, if justice in the city is related to justice in the self, then it is crucial to permit an inward-looking musing of the sort that Shakespeare finds lacking in his Roman heroes. It may be that Rome's inability to look inside makes justice difficult for Rome. But, if such a standard of judgment is unavailable to Romans themselves, it is surely not unavailable to those commenting on Rome (see, for example, St. Augustine, The City of God Against the Pagans, and Montesquieu, The Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline, for two very different examples). Shakespeare's use of Rome and Roman history employs such a standard of judgment, one available to and for his audience.

  52. Of course, rhetoric is crucial to politics, and these “quarrels” with others are inescapable, but it is possible to imagine a politics for which rhetoric is a means to a broader public good.

  53. The suggestion is not that Shakespeare, advocating republican government, held a “mirror” of ideal republics to England which would permit them to perfect their putative republicanism. Rather it suggests that there are republican sentiments in late Elizabethan and early Jacobean England and that Shakespeare wanted his audience to examine those sentiments with great care.

    Shakespeare was not, it has been argued, willing to give up “political virtue.” He educates his audience about the limits of Roman heroic nobility, which seemed so profoundly and deeply associated with Roman republicanism, in order to expose and explore what he understood to be the complex, sometimes paradoxical nature of republican government.

Further Reading

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Berry, Ralph. “Communal Identity and the Rituals of Julius Caesar.” In Shakespeare and the Awareness of the Audience, pp. 75-87. London: Macmillan, 1985.

Maintains that the struggle to define the meaning of ‘Roman’ is the principal subject of Julius Caesar.

Blits, Jan H. “Manliness and Friendship in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.Interpretation 9, Nos. 2-3 (September 1981): 155-67.

Examines the manly virtues and masculine relationships that inform Shakespeare's portrayal of Rome in Julius Caesar.

Bono, Barbara J. “The Birth of Tragedy: Tragic Action in Julius Caesar.English Literary Renaissance 24, No. 2 (Spring 1994): 449-70.

Evaluation of Julius Caesar that comments on the play's sources and deconstructive nuances, as well as its motifs of subverted authority and feminine reproductive power appropriated for political ends.

Brockbank, Philip. “Julius Caesar and the Catastrophes of History.” In On Shakespeare: Jesus, Shakespeare and Karl Marx, and Other Essays, pp. 122-39. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989.

Approaches Julius Caesar from the perspective of tragic finalities—the deaths of Caesar and Brutus—mediated by historical continuity.

Burt, Richard A. “‘A Dangerous Rome’: Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and the Discursive Determinism of Cultural Politics.” In Contending Kingdoms: Historical, Psychological, and Feminist Approaches to the Literature of Sixteenth-Century England and France, edited by Marie-Rose Logan and Peter L. Rudnytsky, pp. 109-27. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991.

Uses Julius Caesar as part of a theoretical critique of contemporary, political assessments of Shakespearean texts.

Charney, Maurice. “The Imagery of Julius Caesar.” In Shakespeare's Roman Plays: The Function of Imagery in the Drama, pp. 41-65. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961.

Focuses on the stylistic and thematic function of storm, blood, and fire imagery in Julius Caesar.

Daniell, David. Introduction to Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare, edited by David Daniell, pp. 1-147. Walton-on-Thames: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1998.

Extensive introduction to Julius Caesar that examines the drama's language, structure, sources, and critical and stage history.

Hamer, Mary. William Shakespeare: ‘Julius Caesar.’ Plymouth, U.K.: Northcote House, 1998, 96 p.

Study of Julius Caesar that principally concentrates on the roles of Portia and Calphurnia.

Kaula, David. “‘Let Us Be Sacrificers’: Religious Motifs in Julius Caesar.Shakespeare Studies XIV (1981): 197-214.

Interprets Shakespeare's application of sixteenth-century religious ideas, attitudes, and language to the pre-Christian subject of Julius Caesar.

Miola, Robert S. “Julius Caesar and the Tyrannicide Debate.” Renaissance Quarterly 38, No. 2 (Summer 1985): 271-89.

Employs Renaissance texts concerning tyrannicide to illustrate Shakespeare's depiction of Caesar as a tyrant and to weigh evidence in the play for the justifiability of his assassination.

Nathan, Norman. “Brutus' Oratory.” San Jose Studies 8, No. 1 (February 1982): 82-90.

Assesses the rhetorical power of Brutus's funeral oration to Caesar.

Parker, Barbara L. “The Whore of Babylon and Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 35, No. 2 (Spring 1995): 251-69.

Draws comparisons between the Rome of Julius Caesar and the biblical representation of Babylon, seeing in Shakespeare's play an implied critique of the Catholic Church.

Pughe, Thomas. “‘What Should the Wars Do with these Jigging Fools?’: The Poets in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.English Studies 69, No. 4 (August 1988): 313-22.

Highlights the minor theme of imagination suppressed by political power in Julius Caesar as embodied by the abused poets Cinna and the camp-poet of Act 4, scene 3.

Sandison, Alan G. Julius Caesar and Friends: The Idea of Rome in Shakespeare's ‘Julius Caesar.’ Armidale, N.S.W.: University of New England, Armidale, 1987, 20 p.

Contemplates the intertwined issues of problematic language and the question of what it means to be Roman addressed in Julius Caesar.

Sohmer, Steve. “Endemic Time Confusion in Julius Caesar.” In Shakespeare's Mystery Play: The Opening of the Globe Theatre 1599, pp. 77-102. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999.

Investigates references to uncertainties of time and date associated with Julian calendar reform in Julius Caesar.

Thomas, Vivian. “Images and Self-Images in Julius Caesar.” In Shakespeare's Roman Worlds, pp. 40-92. London: Routledge, 1989.

Discusses the relationship of Julius Caesar to its source material—particularly Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans—and Shakespeare's evocation of early Imperial Rome in the work.

Tice, Terrence N. “Calphurnia's Dream and Communication with the Audience in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.Shakespeare Yearbook 1 (Spring 1990): 37-49.

Comments on interpretations and misinterpretations of Calphurnia's dream portending Caesar's murder and on the “depressive” mood of Julius Caesar.

Wilson, Richard. “‘Is This a Holiday?’: Shakespeare's Roman Carnival.” ELH 54, No. 1 (Spring 1987): 31-44.

Describes carnivalesque elements of the “world turned upside down” in Julius Caesar.

———. “A Brute Part: Julius Caesar and the Rites of Violence.” Cahiers Élisabéthains 50 (October 1996): 19-32.

Enumerates instances of bloody imagery and iconography in Julius Caesar and other Shakespearean dramas.


Julius Caesar (Vol. 50)


Julius Caesar (Vol. 74)