Anthony Miller (review date 2000)

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SOURCE: Miller, Anthony. “Julius Caesar in the Cold War: The Houseman-Mankiewicz Film.” Literature/Film Quarterly 28, no. 2 (2000): 95-100.

[In the following review, Miller examines the 1953 MGM film adaptation of Julius Caesar directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. Miller relates the film to aspects of 1950s American culture and argues that at the time the movie was made the United States had succeeded Rome both as a classical republic and as the center of a worldwide empire.]

The MGM film of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (directed by Joseph Mankiewicz) went into preproduction in early 1952, was shot in the second half of 1952, and premiered in May 1953. Its appearance at this date sent out a variety of political and cultural signals. At the height of its postwar power, the U.S.A., with its Virgilian laureate, Hollywood, positioned themselves as inheritors of the Roman imperial function and custodians of the English literary classic. This apparent confidence concealed anxieties. Hollywood appropriated Shakespeare as a weapon in fighting off the challenge of television,1 and it conceded authority to British actors, casting the British-born Hollywood stars James Mason and Deborah Kerr and importing the stage actor John Gielgud. Britain meanwhile staked its own counterclaim to continuing imperial status. In the same week as Julius Caesar, there opened in New York A Queen is Crowned, a documentary on the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, an event that celebrated an empire and commonwealth still in apparent working order (New York Times 5 June 1953: 17; 14 June 1953, sec 2: 1. Cf. Morgan 126-37).

The film appeared at an historical juncture much given to applying history to contemporary politics. Parallels between witchcraft trials and the anti-communist “witchhunts” of Senator Joseph McCarthy had been drawn in the cinema by MGM's Ivanhoe (directed by Richard Thorpe 1952) and on the stage by Arthur Miller's Crucible (1953).2 Julius Caesar itself had recently received contemporary political treatment. In 1937, Orson Welles made it an anti-fascist “political thriller” in a stage production on which the film's producer, John Houseman, had collaborated (Ripley 222-32; Houseman Run-through 296-321). In 1949, John Dover Wilson's edition of the play gave it the Shavian nickname Caesar and Caesarism, and compared its Caesar with “Napoleon, Fuhrer, or general secretary of the communist party” (xxi, xxx). Even when first staged in 1599, Julius Caesar invited political analogies, though, like the film, it also problematized them (Rose).

Most reviewers of 1952-53 mentioned the film's contemporary political significance but specified only scattered examples, often contradictory ones (Time 1 June 1953: 59; Saturday Review 6 June 1953: 26; Commonweal 19 June 1953: 274). The reason for this is that the film's political suggestions are open-ended, elastic and reversible. Neither simple coldwar propaganda nor a simple anti-McCarthyist manifesto, the film deploys both of these codes, and others. It assimilates the United States to ancient Rome, but it distances the United States from modern Rome, a site recently of fascist and currently of communist menace. Its Caesar projects both the threat of foreign dictators and the appeal of America's own politician-generals. Its republican conspirators embody both the national pride in its revolutionary origin and the anxiety about contemporary revolutionary conspiracies. Like Shakespeare's Antony, the film's Antony has a powerful dramatic attractiveness but also prompts anxiety about social cohesion.

The Constitution of the U.S.A. is modeled in part on the Roman republic, for it revives the Senate and houses it in a Capitol and its Great Seal quotes Virgil. In 1952 there could be no doubt that the United States had succeeded Rome not only as a classical...

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republic but also as the center of a world empire. The postwar boom that began in the United States in 1946 funded the rebuilding of Europe through the Marshall Plan, whose effects became visible in the early 1950s (Johnson 440). MGM's Roman Capitol, with its soaring white staircase and pillared portico, bears a resemblance to Washington's. The city bustles with building projects that evoke the postwar boom both in the United States and in its economic dependencies which include modern Rome itself. The parallel between ancient Rome and modern America was enunciated by the film's technical advisor: “Rome was a fast-growing city, but … the general shape of its central sections had not changed … in the same manner as downtown Los Angeles doesn't change even though important new buildings are added—especially official ones such as the Federal Building (corresponding to temples, curios, etc.)” (Pasinetti 134).

The speeches of Brutus and Antony to the Roman people take place, too, on the steps of the Capitol. It was on the steps of the Washington Capitol that the General-President Eisenhower was inaugurated and addressed the American people in January 1953. In the film, it is the dead Caesar who is on display there, a restatement of the tragic theme sic transit gloria munch and of its current political manifestation, the fear that the survival of the American body politic was under mortal threat from external and internal enemies.

Rome never means just one thing, however. If the early city exemplifies republican virtues, imperial Rome is associated with immoral luxury and the persecution of Christianity.3 This image of Rome had been perpetuated by MGM's Quo vadis (directed by Mervyn LeRoy 1951), and some sets were re-used for Julius Caesar. One of these may have been Caesar's opulent house, with its panoramic views of the city.4 These grandiose surroundings confirm the political threat of Caesar's hubris, suggestive of modern dictators. A loose rendering of Plutarch at the film's opening states that Caesar had become “odious to moderate men”; the oppositional tribunes are taken into custody by soldiers recalling the Gestapo or OGPU; Caesar makes his first processional entry to the accompaniment of Miklos Rosza's martial music and with a cinematography recalling Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda. According to Houseman, the film's black-and-white was intended to simulate newsreels of the Nazi and fascist years (Houseman “Filming Julius Caesar” 26).

By 1953, memories of fascist Rome had been displaced by anxiety about Italian communism, and the threat of fascist dictators by the threat of Joseph Stalin, who died in March 1953 surrounded by hyperbolic adulation and obsessed with conspiracy. The film's omnipresent statues of Caesar recall Russia's omnipresent images of Stalin, like the 200-foot statue raised at the entrance to the Volga-Don Canal in May 1952. Caesar's self-deification recalls the proposal in Pravda for a new calendar based not on Christ's birth but on Stalin's. Even Caesar's self-flattery that he could not be flattered recalls the sentence Stalin is said to have added to his official biography: “Stalin never allowed his work to be marred by the slightest hint of vanity, conceit, or self-adulation.” At the same time Caesar's physical failings parallel Stalin's physical decline, the subject of much rumor in his last years, and the readiness with which Roman senators embrace assassination parallels anticommunist urgings that Stalin be assassinated, for example in March 1951 (New York Times 24 May 1952: 5; Johnson 454; New York Times 14 March 1951: 16).

There was a charismatic figure at home about whom opinion was more divided. In April 1951, Douglas MacArthur, then commander of UN forces in Korea, publicly disputed government policy and was dismissed by President Truman. MacArthur returned to the United States, where he addressed Congress and state legislatures, attacking the administration for timidity and appeasement. Senator Joseph McCarthy linked the dismissal of MacArthur to the Kremlin, the British government, and the Secretary of State, Dean Acheson. There were moves to impeach Truman and suggestions that MacArthur's military prestige might carry him to the presidency, as Caesar's had helped carry him to supreme power over a supine Senate. MacArthur made triumphal parades through American cities, drawing 2 million people in Chicago and 7.5 million in New York; he courted popularity and confirmed his patriotism by attending baseball games. Caesar's processional entry to the games of Lupercalia recalls the adulation heaped on MacArthur and his exploitation of it. The crowd noises for the Lupercalia are even said to have been recorded at baseball games—a neat example of the film's domestication of Rome (New York Times 25 April 1951: 1; 21 April 1951: 1; 27 April 1951: I; 8 July 1951, sec 5: 2; Manvell 87). Louis Calhern, a noted actor of gangster roles, plays Caesar with a brusque confidence that shows the political appeal of the MacArthuresque general, while sliding into the overbearing hubris that made MacArthur also mistrusted. Caesar's assassination gives prominence to the potent image of the stab in the back, as MacArthur's supporters believed the general had been stabbed in the back by pusillanimous politicians.

MacArthur's star waned rapidly in 1952, as another general rose to the presidency. Dwight Eisenhower was the reverse of MacArthur in his political adroitness and in his ability to seem unthreatening, but he was willing to project a well-judged Caesarism. His promise in the election campaign to seek an end to the war by visiting Korea contrasted his international authority and military experience to their lack in his opponent, Adlai Stevenson; on the death of Stalin, Eisenhower's Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, declared that the Eisenhower era began as the Stalin era ended (New York Times 10 March 1953: I). For the most part, however, Eisenhower acted the role of the genial golf-player with simple, soldierly tastes. In the film, this role is acted out in Caesar's conviviality, as he welcomes and wines senators at his house on the morning of the assassination.

This divided representation of Caesar corresponds both to a characteristic of Shakespeare's text and to a faultline in American ideology, in which there are slippages between a tradition of anti-monarchism and a tradition of electing general-presidents with overwhelming personal prestige, and between anti-imperialism and the embrace of global hegemony. The film's treatment of the republican conspirators traces a similar faultline, between the democratic principles of the U.S. constitution and its empowerment of a propertied patriciate.5 James Mason's grave and cultured Brutus recalls Thomas Jefferson, who lived the private life of a Roman patrician at Monticello, a house modelled on a Roman villa. The tradition of the aristocrat in American politics survived in the person of Adlai Stevenson, a graduate of Princeton and Harvard, whose grandfather had been Vice-President to Grover Cleveland. McCarthy called Stevenson and his kind “bright young men with silver spoons in their mouths:'6 As Stevenson opposed Eisenhower, so Brutus opposes Caesar. Like the Shakespearean text, the film associates this political type with a cultivated private conscience, social aloofness, and political ineffectuality. Brutus's first act is to take out a book, inviting a comparison with the notorious “egghead” Stevenson. Brutus's idealistic approach to the assassination of Caesar also invited comparison with Stevenson's political idealism. When challenged to produce his plan for combatting communism, Stevenson had declared he would do so by extending democracy; he believed that the Indian Jefferson, Jawaharlal Nehru, was “one of the few people entitled to wear a halo in their own lifetimes:'7 The film deals respectfully with Brutus and his aristocratic republicanism, but, like Shakespeare's play, it communicates no understanding of such an ideology.

The film makes sense of revolution only through the fanaticism and personal resentment of Cassius (John Gielgud). It sharpens Shakespeare's split between the idealist Brutus and the politic Cassius. Mason's performance is so endowed with gravity that it almost implodes; Gielgud gives a performance of the utmost energy and brilliance. Brutus is the conspirator who is seen in his reassuringly suburban home, a man of property and a loving husband, while the other conspirators are suspiciously rootless. The film takes a disturbing new direction when Cassius begins his persuasion of Brutus. Having threatened the audience with the rightist tyranny of Caesar, the film now threatens them with the leftist conspiracy of Cassius. There is a relish both exciting and disturbing in the way Cassius throws himself into conspiracy, playing on Brutus's aristocratic self-respect, family pietas, and contempt for Caesar's vanity.

Conspiracy was a powerful concept in the United States of the early 1950s, as it was in Elizabethan England. To Elizabethan Protestants, Catholicism was not merely a religion but a religious cloak for treason (Guy 277). Likewise, Communism was not merely a political party but a conspiracy. This was the premise of the House Un-American Activities Committee and of McCarthy's Senate committees; it was confirmed by the Supreme Court in 1951 and enshrined in legislation (Furhammar and Isaksson 70). Gielgud's Cassius is not only a conspirator but also very conspicuously an English conspirator, as, less conspicuously, is Mason's Brutus. The most dangerous Communist conspirators were believed (not without reason) to be upper-class Englishmen, like the Cambridge-educated diplomats Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who disappeared in May 1951.8 The film takes on the lineaments of cold-war anti-communist movies like My Son John (directed by Leo McCarey 1952) as Cassius plays on Brutus's good nature, seduces him to the revolutionary cause, and then reveals to the audience his own unscrupulous fanaticism. The filming of Cassius's soliloquy “Well, Brutus, thou art noble” eloquently communicates the cold-war fear of instability and subversion as the screen darkens, the storm begins to blow, and Cassius paces relentlessly towards the camera—and towards his disruptive goal. “Mirrored on his face are the anger and the seething frustration, and also the envy that Caesar comments upon; he moves towards us as though possessed of an inner storm” (Saturday Review 6 June 1953: 27).

Senator McCarthy's anti-communist crusade reached its zenith in mid-1953, just when Julius Caesar was released. It was only in July 1953 that the Senate and the Eisenhower administration, which was beginning to find him a political liability, set out to curb his influence. The conspirators' main antagonist, Antony (Marlon Brando), recalls the demagogic McCarthy in several ways, especially in the Forum scene. He appeals to and manipulates popular feeling over the heads of a political establishment, indeed by directly denouncing the political establishment. He accuses political opponents of treason. He produces a document that rather spuriously supports his case. But it is made clear that Antony himself acts not from political principles but from cynical opportunism. In his big speech on the steps of the Capitol, he transforms frighteningly into a dangerous stirrer of trouble. The people's friend is revealed as a demagogic opportunist, the counterpart of the enemy he claims to denounce. Just so, Eisenhower accused McCarthy of using the very methods that he denounced (Reeves 501).

The film industry, and MGM in particular, were sensitive to both the power and the danger of McCarthyism. On the one hand, MGM had been among the first studios to submit to McCarthyist pressure; on the other, the studio's employees were among the first to experience blacklisting (Fried 75). In 1950 Mankiewicz himself had battled with Cecil B. De Mille over a proposed loyalty oath for members of the Screen Directors Guild. In a speech to B'nai Brith in New York he grouped American liberals with Jews and Negroes as “slandered, libeled, persecuted, and threatened with extinction” (Ceplair and Englund 367-71; Geist 173-204). In early 1954 the television journalist Ed Murrow denounced McCarthy's methods. He ended by urging the American public to take responsibility for resisting McCarthyism: “He didn't create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it, and rather successfully. Cassius was right: the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves …” (Chafe 133). Coming soon after the popular success of Julius Caesar, Murrow's allusion suggests that he recognized the film's political analogies and expected his audience to do the same.

But as there are two sides to Caesar and two sides to the conspiracy, so there are two sides to Antony. Ambitious and opportunistic though he is, he is nevertheless correct when he claims that there has been a conspiracy and that it was driven by private malice as well as public wrongs. When he confronts the conspirators after the assassination, Antony stands out as the favorite Hollywood type of the one just man, the righteous outsider, battling what suddenly seems an ageing, indecisive, and quarrelsome establishment. As it takes this turn, the film looks beyond high politics to broader social movements. Antony's independence, youthfulness, sexiness, and Latin appearance portend the impact on postwar America of groups such as war veterans, immigrants and refugees, and nonconformist beats. In Antony's brilliant entry after Caesar's assassination, he approaches down a long pillared passage, both disrupting and taking command over the august architecture and the company of nervous conspirators.

Brando had made his name as the discomfiting outsider figure of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire; by the time Julius Caesar was released The Wild One had been finished. His public persona cultivated similar characteristics. A Time interview on the release of Julius Caesar depicts a hip bohemian: “To his friends—a good many of them bebop-talking actors, waitresses and artists—Marlon Brando, 29, is ‘the most,’ ‘cool cat’ off stage and on:’ Brando dismisses Hollywood moguls as readily as Antony challenges Roman senators: “A good Hollywood movie, Brando thinks, is practically impossible to produce because United States moviemakers are predominantly businessmen” (Time 1 June 1953: 59). Brando imparts to his Antony a similar iconoclasm, from his first appearance, when he shows an insolently appreciative eye for Calpurnia (Greer Garson), to his conduct after the death of Caesar, when he takes over Caesar's palace and settles himself with satisfaction in his imperial chair.

Like Antony, too, Brando the beat attacks or disdains the powerful without embracing the people: his Time interview dismisses the predictable tastes of the moviegoing public no less than the moviemakers who satisfy them. The film likewise represents the Roman people as passive, though its intent in doing so is difficult to gauge. The directions in Mankiewicz's shooting script call the Roman people “the mob,” unlike Shakespeare's stage directions, which call them plebeians or commoners (Houseman “Shooting Script”). But they are a strangely docile “mob,” especially since the film omits the street murder of Cinna the poet, a famously electric scene in Welles's 1937 stage version. Welles's use of the people had confronted the audience with its complicity, or the possibility of its complicity, in dictatorship; the film reflects the audience back to itself as an audience. Its Roman people are mostly lookers-on. They watch the arrest of the tribunes or Caesar's entry to the Capitol in a passive hush. Like a movie audience, they are largely static, and ranged in orderly fashion. They obediently take their place around Caesar's corpse as if conducted by ushers with flashlights; on the verge of rioting, they obediently troop back to their places when Antony recalls them. Even when they mutiny, the effect is decorous, viewed in a long, distancing shot.

These passively gazing people embody a cold-war quiescence. Like the film's Romans, the citizens of 1950s liberal democracy express opinions and vote for candidates, but they only react to the choices offered them; they do not initiate political action. The film may intend to condemn this quiescence, but its many political ambivalences tend to justify it. When every political judgment is cancelled by an equally valid opposing one, it is all too baffling: the fault is not in ourselves but in our stars. For all its array of political reference, the Houseman-Mankiewicz Julius Caesar is fundamentally antipolitical (cf. New Republic 3 August 1953: 20). That which is truly valuable, people's full humanity, manifests only in private and domestic scenes. One of the disturbing things about Antony is that even in the private scene invented for him by the film, when he takes the dead Caesar's seat, he is still preoccupied by power. Antony is not given a private self to which he and the audience can thankfully retire. On the other hand, Cassius redeems himself in the quarrel scene, when he speaks the language of friendship; Brutus proves his nobility because the first thing he thinks of, on entering the orchard after the storm has passed, is Portia; Caesar at home reveals himself as amiable, capable of fear, and solicitious for Calpurnia. The objects of this affection, the play's Roman matrons, are transformed into Hollywood wives. Brutus finds Portia, who is sleeping peacefully and chastely through the storm, behind a gauzy veil that creates a femininized space of gentle allure and tenuous safety. When Caesar agrees to attend the Senate, Calpurnia disappears from the film, retiring into a chamber whose door she shuts, emphatically but also powerlessly, on the public world.


  1. The years 1952-53 saw a decline of cinema admissions under the impact of television (Rhode 438-39).

  2. Lenihan 45-48. In a singular convergence of the rival political systems, the use of dramatized history as political parable was most fully developed in Stalinist Russia.

  3. For some members of a 1950s audience, as for the Elizabethans, modern Rome also represented anti-Christ, in the person of the Pope.

  4. Houseman and Mankiewicz give differing accounts of the re-use of these sets (Houseman, Front and Center) 394 (Geist 232)

  5. Classical accounts from the period of the film are Lehmann and Hofstadler (chs. 1-2); see also Richard, ch. 5.

  6. Acheson in turn haughtily characterized the McCarthyists as “primitives” Halberstam 56.

  7. New York Times 22 October 1953: 1; Johnson 475. Mankiewicz himself drew a comparison between Brutus and Stevenson (Geist 224).

  8. New York Times 7 June 1951: 7. Hollis Alpert's review saw in Gielgud's Cassius “the prototype of the Marxist intellectual” (Saturday Review 6 June 1953: 26).

Works Cited

Chafe, William H. The Unfinished Journey: America Since World War II. New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 1986. Ceplair, Larry and Steven Englund. The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community 1930-1960. Garden City NY: Anchor P/Doubleday, 1980.

Fried, Richard M. Nightmare in Red: The McCarthy Era in Perspective. New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990. Furhammar, Leif and Folke Isaksson. Politics and Film. Trans. Kersti French. London: Studio Vista, 1971.

Geist, Kenneth L. Pictures Will Talk: The Life and Films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz. New York: Scribners, 1978.

Guy, John. Tudor England. Oxford UP, 1988.

Halberstam, David. The Fifties. New York: Villard Books, 1993.

Hofstadler, Richard. The American Political Tradition. New York: Knopf, 1948.

Houseman, John. “Filming Julius Caesar.Sight and Sound (July-September 1953): 24-27.

———. Front and Center. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979.

———. “Julius Caesar: Mr. Mankiewicz' Shooting Script.” The Quarterly of Film, Radio, and Television 8 (1953-54): 109-24.

———. Run-through. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972.

Johnson, Paul. A History of the Modern World. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1983.

Lehmann, Karl. Thomas Jefferson: American Humanist. New York: Knopf, 1947.

Lenihan, John H. “English Classics for Cold War America.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 20 (1992): 42-51. Manvell, Roger. Shakespeare and the Film, rev. edn. South Brunswick NJ and New York: A.S. Barnes, 1979.

Morgan, Kenneth O. The People's Peace: British History 1945-1990. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990.

Pasinetti, P. M. “Julius Caesar: The Role of the Technical Adviser.” The Quarterly of Film, Radio, and Television 8 (1953-54): 131-38.

Reeves, Thomas C. The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy: A Biography. Briarcliff Manor NY: Stein and Day, 1982.

Rhode, Eric. A History of the Cinema from Its Origins to 1970. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.

Richard, Carl J. The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard UP, 1994.

Ripley, John. Julius Caesar on Stage in England and America, 1599-1973. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980.

Rose, Mark. “Conjuring Caesar: Ceremony, History, and Authority in 1599.” English Literary Renaissance 19 (1989): 291-304.

Wilson, John Dover, ed. Julius Caesar. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1949.

Krystyna Kujawinska-Courtney (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Kujawinska-Courtney, Krystyna. “Julius Caesar: Two Visions of the Past.” In “Th' Interpretation of the Time”: The Dramaturgy of Shakespeare's Roman Plays, pp. 26-58. Victoria, B.C., Canada: University of Victoria, 1993.

[In the following essay, Kujawinska-Courtney argues that the play's treatment of Julius Caesar's character is focused on whether Caesar should be viewed as insolent, impious, and imperfect, or as sacred and idolized. Kujawinska-Courtney contends that Shakespeare's manipulation of his character “shakes the audience's confidence that either Caesar is the correct one.”]

How Caesar should be seen, how his past (shadowy in the play but often invoked) can or should be a contributor to his charisma—these are the focus of Shakespeare's play about his assassination. Is Caesar profane and flawed as Cassius sees him (I.ii), or sacred and iconic as Antony presents him (III.ii)? Shakespeare's manipulation of mimesis and diegesis in the unfolding dramaturgy of the play shakes the audience's confidence that either Caesar is the correct one.

The first scene of Julius Caesar can be taken as a microcosm of the entire play. In that it portrays a set of challenges to the Roman Plebs' momentary endorsement of Caesar's greatness, it prefigures the dramaturgical design of the later action, which is a series of subversions of opinions. Typical of Shakespeare's expositions, it implies rather than explains. Only after a vigorous disagreement between Tribunes and Plebs does the theatrical audience learn that the Plebeians flocking to the streets and rejoicing are in fact celebrating Caesar's triumph on his return to Rome after defeating Pompey's sons at Munda. Plutarch's narrative indignation couched in his account of the celebration of Caesar's victory over civil, not external, enemies (Henley 1896, 5:56-57) is turned in Julius Caesar into an agon between two attitudes—glorification and condemnation—toward a war hero. Though at this moment of the dramatic action Shakespeare aims chiefly at evoking the fickleness of the mob, in the larger pattern of the play the dramaturgy aims at complicating any evaluative comment the audience might make about Caesar's past.

The stage-traffic in Act I, scene i, is heavy in movement, repartee, and emotional energy. But this initial dominance of mimetic representation is pushed aside by Marullus's sudden burst of oratorical verse into a basically prose context. This intrusion freezes the movement of the action and like a film close-up, focuses attention on the speaker and on his message. The change of linguistic mode defamiliarizes the audiences—both offstage and onstage—and serves to set Marullus at a distance from the Plebeians, imposing on them his Patrician authority.1 In a way not only the content but also the form of his speech contributes to the apparent power of his argument. Marullus's political message is very simple: the Plebeians' adoration of Caesar is condemnable once the collective heroic past of Rome becomes a touchstone for an ultimate valuation of Caesar's glory and that of the late Pompey.

According to Marullus's interpretation, the dramatic present reveals the Plebeians as betrayers of their own memory. In the past they vigorously celebrated the victories of the “great Pompey.” Now they have unscrupulously abandoned the previous allegiance, “mak[ing] holiday to see Caesar, … rejoic[ing] in his triumph” (I.i.30-31). They are paying homage to Caesar's victory, just attained over great Pompey's kindred. In his reprimand of the Plebeians' present behaviour, Marullus implicitly chastises Caesar for his unprincipled civil war:

Knew you not Pompey? Many a time and oft
Have you climb'd up to walls and battlements,
To towers and windows, yea, to chimney tops,
To see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome:
And when you saw his chariot but appear
Have you not made an universal shout,
That Tiber trembled underneath her banks
To hear the replication of your sounds
Made in her concave shores?
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?


Flavius, the other Tribune, picks up the moral thrust that Marullus has just made in his critical valuation of Caesar's past. Yet the audience perceives an ironic twist in Flavius's narrative confirming the glory of Caesar by attempting to subvert it. He sees the need to pluck scarves honouring Caesar's past achievements from his statues and to pluck Caesar's “growing feathers … [to] make him fly an ordinary pitch” (I.i.72-73). The point is that the “scarves” are there and the feathers “growing.”

This first scene of the play reveals the praxis of the whole dramatic world of Julius Caesar. Caesar's past establishes him as a person constantly elevated by some, and denigrated by others. His elevation and denigration are presented by the immediacy of objective mimetic representation which is constantly played against subjective diegeses, detached by their very nature. The apparent conflict between these two dramaturgical modes intensifies the cloudiness of the dramatic world of the play.2

The cognitive process of the spectators/readers is complicated by the fact that up to the Forum scene (III.ii) they are exposed only to one-sided narratives, all of them diminishing Caesar. In fact, the colossal side of Caesar (I.ii.134) is never substantiated by any details in the play.3 There are no narrative explications of Caesar's audacity in the domination of the pirates who held him captive, his strategy on battlefields, or his genius as a statesman, law-giver, and reformer of the calendar.4 Shakespeare prima facie ignores Caesar's renown in time past, showing him as crowned with laurel leaves, and ignoring the spectacular achievements through which they were gained.

When eventually Antony's oratio funebris supplies the spectators with concrete evidence of Caesar's famous deeds, the catalogue is scant and questionable. For instance Antony skillfully telescopes Caesar's glory on battlefields into an emotional but insubstantial aetiology for the cloak covering Caesar's dead body. It is supposedly the cloak that he remembers Caesar “put … on; … that day he overcame the Nervii” (III.ii. 173, 175). By implication Antony makes use of the personal or collective memory of his onstage and offstage audiences who should remember that the battle against the Nervii was the most precarious and most decisive in the Gallic wars (Henley 1896, 5:22). But the anecdote of the garment is problematic. Plutarch's Antonius had not participated in the battle against the Nervii (Henley 1896, 6:5-8); he first joined Caesar in Gaul three years later. Shakespeare's Antony narrates then with assured conviction events which he did not witness. Further, the battle itself took place some seventeen years before the Ides of March, 44 b.c., which makes the historical value Antony assigns to the cloak highly doubtful. Antony creates, then, in his narrative reference to a garment a little myth to intensify the larger myth of Caesar's military glory. The complexity of the relationship between these two myths may be diminished for the less educated audience: they react emotionally (as the stage audience does) to the story of the origin of a gashed mantle, but Antony's devious manipulation of history escapes them.5

Antony's prevarication in the Nervii allusion bears comparison with other selective references to Caesar's past in his speech. He reminds the Plebeians of the material profits that Caesar's victories once brought to Rome (III.ii.90-91), and he alludes to Caesar's sympathetic engagement with the problems of the poor (III.ii.93). In other words Antony narrates only those details of Caesar's past which he can easily turn into “acts of public service rather than a quest for personal glory” (Thomas 1989, 65). Indeed, the Caesar of this demagogic speech was a “virtuous” man in the formulation of the historian Donald Earl who points out that the Roman concept of virtus “consisted in the winning of personal pre-eminence and glory by the commission of great deeds in the service of the Roman state” (1967, 21).

Though Antony elevates Caesar's spiritual greatness, as a political tactician he knows how to exploit the mimetic power of the semantic symbols: Caesar's bleeding body and his bloodied cloak (III.ii.160, 172, 196-199, 226-228). The choreographic use of properties qualifies and exaggerates the expectations of the onstage and offstage audiences who are already aroused by his narrative. And so the judiciously managed properties set up the final emotional involvement of both audiences.

The Forum audience never notices as deceptive Antony's clever management of the narrative (Caesar's past) and of the stage (Caesar's corpse). But the theatre audience may see through his crafted behaviour. As the mimetic and diegetic interplay of his actions shows, Antony is as much a manipulator as an idealist. He is perpetuating Caesar's glory; but he also has another objective—to fashion himself, morally and politically, into the ultimate defender of the Caesarian status quo—he intends to assume in the future the dead Caesar's powers over Rome which were exercized in the present and forged in the past.

It is not only Caesar's past as a Roman hero that is made ambiguous in this play. Even events that Caesar is involved in the unfolding action are made morally ambivalent by Shakespeare's careful management of dramaturgy. The highly politicized Lupercal and the accompanying political byplay constitute a turning point in the conspirators' decision to murder Caesar. Yet Shakespeare omits the mimetic presentation of this crucial historical moment. His strategic decision to have the offering and declining of the crown narrated by differently biased witnesses adds to the obscurity of the entire dramaturgical world of Julius Caesar. Since under such circumstances closure about the moral rectitude of the conspiracy is precluded, the theatre audience wavers, continually modifying its response to Caesar and to the assassins. Subjective diegeses, appealing as they are, cannot substitute for the objective power of mimetic representation which the staged Lupercal could have offered.

The psychological situation of the theatre audience in the matter of the Lupercalian ceremonies is complicated more drastically by the fact that the action is taking place “just off-stage,” and the offstage sounds make the audience feel that it is almost witnessing a mimetic presentation. Maurice Charney treats these shouts as “a good example of presentational images that are not visual” (1961, 68). In this unusual bit of dramaturgy, Shakespeare teases the audience with near-mimesis accompanied by strongly prejudiced diegesis to evoke a tense uncertainty which the onstage characters share with the theatre audience.

The near-mimesis functions as a lurking danger to the reality perceived on the stage. The shouts of the crowd imply Caesar's political success, while Cassius and Brutus, present on stage, voice their anxiety about the threat to the Roman Republic that the ceremony nearby evidently poses. The inner energy Brutus and Cassius exude is infectious, and the spectators are more likely to be caught up in the point of view of these intense Romans whom they see than in the more distanced near-mimesis in the marketplace offstage.

Earlier, as soon as the Lupercalian procession instructed by Caesar has left to perform the rites (I.ii.11), Cassius begins his attempt to lure Brutus into the conspiracy as an ally. He must maneouver the responses of his interlocutor in a careful way, as he does not know Brutus's attitude toward Caesar's supposed political plans. Cassius, of course, wishes Brutus to learn who his real friends are and how much they expect him to safeguard the welfare of Republican Rome.

Speaking from a Patrician's stance, Cassius begins his tales about Caesar's past by referring to his own and Brutus's equality to Caesar, an equality conferred by their birth and nurture (I.ii.96-98). The content of the anecdotes themselves serves, however, as an illustration of Cassius's opinion that Caesar has no right to any superior status and that in fact he is an inferior creature. Demeaning Caesar's past, Cassius struggles to find a space for himself in the past and future history of Rome. In the first of his two narratives Cassius compares himself to Aeneas rescuing a feeble old man Anchises/Julius Caesar (I.ii.111-114). This comparison is to illustrate not only Caesar's weakness but also Cassius's grandeur, and his belief that, owing to his heroic mission in the assassination he plans, he himself will become another founder of a new Rome—immortalized by grateful generations (Miola 1983, 82-85). In his second account of Caesar's weaknesses, his illness in Spain, Cassius deprives Caesar even of his gender and his maturity, assigning to him the identity of “a sick girl” (I.ii.127), who should take an inferior place to real men—by implication Cassius.

Ironically enough, Cassius's narrative denigration of Caesar is clothed in an illeistic grammar borrowed from Caesar's own style in the Commentaries on the Gallic Wars. Those members of the audience who know Caesar's work and can make the connection will be aware that Cassius is willy-nilly paying tribute to Caesar by imitating his style.6 Thus the very rhetoric of his anecdotes reveals that he cannot escape the concept of Caesar's greatness—he models himself on the man he belittles to Brutus. Once more, then, Shakespeare differentiates between an average theatre-goer and an intellectual one. The commoners standing in the pit of the Globe in 1599 most likely took Cassius's style at face value, while the more educated part of his audience, those sitting in the tiers, could have extrapolated from Cassius's adopted style a means of distrusting him as a manipulator of Brutus's response. (Brutus has never seen through Cassius's stylistic machinations, and already in the play he himself has assumed Caesar's illeistic style—I.ii.42-46).

Frequent use of anacoluthon reveals the agitation of Cassius's mind and his natural inclination to rash action.7 Indeed, Shakespeare's Cassius is, as Plutarch says, of “hotte stirring” (Henley 1896, 6:189); being dared he jumped instantly into the water during the swimming match with Caesar and “bade him follow” (I.ii.105). Now he is not afraid to risk his life while probing Brutus's political convictions.

Attempting to capture his brother-in-law's attention by whatever means, Cassius makes an ample use of histrionics. Like an amateurish actor who plays for the applause of the public, he accentuates and repeats the phrases that have appeared to be of interest to his listener or have evoked his disbelief: “he did shake; 'tis true, this god did shake” (I.ii.120). Using emphatic auxiliary verbs he ingrains in Brutus's mind those facts of his narrative which he regards as important (I.ii.116,119-120,123). His theatrical ploy extends then to a convincing performance; he enacts Caesar's part in front of Brutus, supposedly giving his words verbatim (I.ii.101-103,110-126).

Shrewdly arranging the diegetic and mimetic dimensions of drama, Cassius—the director and actor—is successful in luring Brutus's interest. Unintentionally his seduction is intensified by the offstage shouts from the ceremony to which all men except Cassius and Brutus have been drawn. Shakespeare uses these offstage sounds cumulatively (I.ii.77SD,130SD) to fuel the nervousness of the apprehensive Brutus which Cassius is quick to exploit. For instance the first offstage flourish-and-shout punctuates precisely the point Cassius has been circling towards. The fear Brutus admits after the first offstage shout (I.ii.77-78) encourages Cassius to enter into a more open denigration of Caesar. Whatever defence of Caesar Brutus might consider making is refuted by the growing suspicion that he shares with the audience, a fear of Caesar's quest for power.

In the third part of his narrative Cassius concentrates on a comparison between Caesar and Brutus. He uses the same technique here that Marullus used with the Plebeians in the first scene; comparing Caesar to another, Cassius disparages him in relation to Brutus in the same way that Marullus disparaged Caesar in relation to Pompey. Next he subtly appeals to Brutus's pride with his allusion to Brutus's ancestor Lucius Junius Brutus, who was one of the founders of the Roman republic:

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.


The more educated part of the theatre audience would know that by a scarcely veiled innuendo Cassius besmirches Caesar further. He equates him with the “devil”—the tyrant Tarquin who dominated Rome in the past. Eliminating the new would-be tyrant, Brutus will repeat his ancestor's act of salvation and earn for himself a place in the history of Rome.

Cassius's narrative bait appeals successfully to Brutus's sense of his own identity; later in the play Brutus makes the heroic identification with his ancestor and, like Cassius, hopes to find a space for himself in the approval of the future:

My ancestors did from the streets of Rome
The Tarquin drive, when he was call'd a king.
… O Rome, I make thee promise,
If the redress will follow, thou receivest
Thy full petition at the hand of Brutus.


To apply the terminology of modern psychology, Cassius makes use in the “temptation scene” of Brutus's subconscious “desirable identity images, [that] represent what people can be or should be in a particular context, and are influenced by personality factors, and situational factors, and audience factors” (Schlenker 1986, 25).

The whole scene ii of Act I is a skillfully orchestrated interaction of mimetic and diegetic elements. Looming offstage, the colossal figure of Caesar dominates the reality of the stage, in a way his spirit will dominate the events to come after his assassination. Cassius portrays Caesar as a physical weakling, but paradoxically he finds in his personal ambition a threat to the Republic. Cassius's fear of this alleged weakling is an ironic confirmation of Caesar's glory and political importance. In addition, sagacious members of the audience see that the hidden aim of Cassius in the conspiracy against Caesar is to substitute his own charisma, a-building at this very moment, for Caesar's stature in the power structure of Rome.

The meaning of the off-stage shouts is ambiguous, as ambiguous as the concept of Caesar's greatness or weakness, which is never univocally proclaimed in the play. Shakespeare plays these shouts against Cassius's narrative, and the clash between near-mimesis and the diegetic response to it clouds a single interpretation of the dramatic world of the play. Too few clues (the shouts offstage) and too many clues (the staged part of the scene) effectively limit the hermeneutic horizon of the spectators.

The revelation of the events which have just taken place offstage is delayed by the ceremonial entry of Caesar's train. The audience learns about the mood of those returning, observing through Brutus's eyes that they appear to be in a disturbed state (I.ii.180-186). A fragmentary eye-witness account comes in Casca's twice-told tale of the Lupercalian rites and their political embellishment. His first narrative is so scant that it only whets the audience's desire for the truth. He speaks on the urging of his interlocutors, who almost have to drag the answers out of his throat:

Why, there was a crown offer'd him, and, being offer'd him, he put it by with the back of his hand, thus; and then the people fell a-shouting.
What was the second noise for?
Why, for that too.
They shouted thrice: what was the last cry for?
Why, for that too.
Was the crown offer'd him thrice?
Aye, marry, was't, and he put it by thrice, every time gentler than other; and at every putting-by mine honest neighbours shouted.
Who offered him the crown?
Why, Antony.


Answering their detailed questions in a very uncooperative manner, Casca four times abruptly calls attention to his next statement with the particle “why,” as if he wanted to exclude vaguely apprehended doubt or objection. Other interpretations of Casca's “why”s are, of course, possible. They can be a signal of his impatience or of his desire to seem a “blunt fellow” (I.ii.292).

But whatever the interpretation of Casca's rhetorical ploys, his flat factual report does not satisfy Brutus's and Cassius's interest. They demand a more connected and more circumstantial discourse; Brutus, true to a ritual cast of mind that will reappear in the preparations for the assassination, focuses his questions here not so much on Caesar's refusal of the crown as on “the manner” of this refusal (I.ii.230).

Casca responds by re-imposing his uninvolved point of view:

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 offered it to him again; then he put it by again; but to my thinking, he was very loath to lay his fingers off it. And then he offered it the third time. He put it the third time by; and still as he refus'd it, the rabblement hooted, and clapp'd their chopt hands, and threw up their sweaty night-caps, and uttered such a deal of stinking breath because Caesar refus'd the crown, that it had, almost, choked Caesar; for he swounded and fell down at it. And for mine own part, I durst not laugh, for fear of opening my lips and receiving the bad air.


The affectation of being primarily concerned with the noisome air reeking from the rabble enables him to appear offhand about the details of the ceremony; Casca seems to find it difficult to recall them. He corrects himself for using the word “crown” for “coronets” (I.ii.233-234), as if pedantically determined to get every mimetic detail correct, or his posture may be that he really has not paid close attention to what Brutus and Cassius think the most important stage property of the off-stage scene. His repetition of the phrase “to my thinking” (II.ii.235-236) may suggest that Casca himself is unsure of an objective interpretation of the events, having been in some way numbed by the mimetic moment he has just been through. That moment was a bit of street theatre arranged by Antony to exploit the rites. (Ironically the theatre audience itself is and will be to the end of the play also unsure about the meaning for Caesar's intention of this supposedly impromptu “mimesis.”)

The mimetic context of Casca's narrative usually makes critics more interested in him as a character than in the real meaning of Caesar's reaction to the offer of the crown (MacCallum 1910, 286-287; Simmons 1973, 87-88; Dorsch [1955] 1986, lvi). Such a critical approach disregards the fact that Cassius and Brutus ascribe to Caesar the privateness of his pursuits and political ambition, while the Caesar Casca conveys has obeyed, even if reluctantly, the will of the people. He has placed their priorities above his. The overall effect of Casca's report and Brutus's and Cassius's interpretations of his report is, then, the confirmation of the feeling growing in the spectators that human evaluative process has less to do with truth than with what people can be persuaded to believe, or persuade themselves to believe.

The interpretation of the conflicting diegetic evaluations of Caesar is further perplexed when in the scenes leading to the assassination the audience is also confronted with Caesar in action. During the four times he appears on the stage, the spectators see an inconsistent portrait of this famous warrior and politician. In each of his entries Caesar displays simultaneously both profanum and sacrum sides—his “two bodies” as it were, are revealed. Indeed, in Julius Caesar the medieval concept of the king's two bodies is turned into a pivot on which Shakespeare's dramatic presentation of Caesar is poised8 and the clash between the profane and sacred aspects of Caesar successfully complicates the offstage audience's response.

The implications for Caesar's political situation and for his charisma loom large, but he acts as if they did not exist. Though repeatedly claiming immunity from normal human passions (III.i.36-43), Caesar unabashedly demonstrates his human weaknesses. On the one hand he insists on his spiritual uniqueness:

          men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive;
Yet in the number I do know but one
That unassailable holds on his rank,
Unshaked of motion; … I am he.


On the other hand, the first two of Caesar's state entries, though ceremonial, reveal his own human frailties, pointing out that he is “flesh and blood, and apprehensive.” He speaks imperiously in Act I, scene ii,9 but what he speaks about is failure in family life (“barrenness” I.ii.6-9) or his physical disability (“deafness,” I.ii.210-211). He has no narratives of his past heroic achievements; he feels the need of none, because “the real man Caesar disappears for himself under the greatness of the Caesar myth. … He is a numen to himself” (Dowden [1875] 1964, 37). In this he follows blindly a static concept of the inherent sacredness of his charisma and power.

Shakespeare's Caesar is not aware of the culturally enduring truth that remaining at the center of power depends on a charisma that must be constantly renewed by self, by coterie, and by crowd. Clifford Geertz's formulation in terms of cultural anthropology is relevant here:

No matter how democratically the members of the elite are chosen … or how deeply divided among themselves they may be … they justify their existence and order their actions in terms of a collection of stories, ceremonies, insignia, formalities, and appurtenances … The intense focus on the figure of the king and the frank construction of a cult … around him make the symbolic character of domination. … [M]ajesty is made, not born.

(1983, 124)

The conspirators, as if conscious of this cultural and historical phenomenon, subvert Caesar's charismatic domination by undermining the basis in the past for Caesar's present glory, and they thus suspend their own cooperation with creating Caesar's mystique. At the same time Caesar himself willy-nilly advances the assassins' strategy, since in his misplaced confidence10 he neglects the power of the two buildingblocks of charisma, diegesis and mimesis. Eventually even Casca, the most obsequious member of Caesar's coterie (I.ii.1,14) disengages himself from Caesar and becomes one of the members of the conspiracy against him. As Caesar ignores the dialectics of his image, he also decenters the theatre audience's commitment. What he thinks of as perpetual and static, the audience may come to regard as volatile and dynamic.

The offstage audience's response to Caesar as the center of power is again defocused by the scene in his house on the morning of the Ides of March. The “night-gown” (“house-coat”) which the stage direction (II.ii.1SD) attributes to him evokes another rupture in the publicness of his self-regard—he receives his political colleagues in attire which has no place in the public world. Moreover, the only two narratives of past action which Caesar delivers in the play are placed in this scene, and they show his involvement in domestic, not state affairs. He recalls the disturbances of the previous night, concentrating on his wife's nightmarish cries (II.ii.1-3) and later in the scene he relates the contents of her upsetting dream to his visitor:

Because I love you, I will let you know:
Calphurnia here, my wife, stays me at home.
She dreamt to-night she saw my statue,
Which like a fountain with an hundred spouts
Did run pure blood; and many lusty Romans
Came smiling, and did bathe their hands in it.
And these does she apply for warnings and portents
And evils imminent; and on her knee
Hath begg'd that I will stay at home to-day.


As Calphurnia's dream has not been narrated in any other way on the stage, the spectators are left to interpret the circumstances of her original narrative which have not been supplied. Caesar's behaviour allows them to deduce that the couple must have talked about the dream before arising, presumably from the same bed. It is a touching glimpse of a politician's private life; Caesar who not only shares the intimacy of a bed with his wife and finds time to talk to her, is really concerned about her welfare. The affection in Caesar's married life does not help him, however, in the implementation of his charismatic greatness, at least from his stage audience's point of view. Decius's interpretation of Calphurnia's dream reminds Caesar of his public image in which there is no place for domestic emotions (II.ii.93-104).

Calphurnia's presence asserts (in vain) the validity of private life, but it also enlarges the dramatic world of the play by overtly connecting the supernatural with the natural. The spectators have earlier experienced the mimetic and diegetic intrusion of the prodigies into Rome (I.iii, II.i.44-45). Now Calphurnia's detailed narrative description (II.ii.13-26) heightens the tragic dimension of Julius Caesar, since she gives the omens the function of a direct warning to Caesar.11 Her husband ignores them, and his feeling of his own charismatic security and invulnerability contributes to the dramatic tension, amplifying the audience's anticipation—it knows him to be a doomed man on the very brink.

Earlier in the play when the portents are experienced mimetically by the audience they are integrated organically in the political world of the play. Casca (I.iii.5-3,15-28) and Cassius (I.iii.46-52,62-79) both narrate particulars of the portents while the cosmic storm is actually in progress (the storm at night, lightning flashing ominously over the characters who meet in the street). And this combination of mimetic and diegetic presentation of the disorder in the macrocosm intensifies the experience for the audience.12 At the same time the audience is not allowed to forget Caesar's glory, since the portents are “commensurate with the greatness of Caesar's influence” (Whitaker 1953, 228). Indeed, whatever biases the narrators reveal, their accounts of the omens in the heavens add to the sense of Caesar as colossal, a concept that transcends the mimetic world of the play. The presence of the divine intervention therefore confirms Caesar's sacredness, despite the weaknesses of his profane identity revealed by mimesis.

Building on his pattern of binary evaluation of Caesar—elevation and denigration—Shakespeare makes his characters Casca and Cassius express radically opposed opinions about the premonitory import of the tempestuous night. In the heightened emotions of his harrowing experiences in the streets of Rome, the prosaic Casca the theatre audience has known turns to poetry, but even so he retains some of the rhetoric of his Lupercalian narrative; repeating phrases (I.iii.5-6), especially anaphorically (I.iii.9). This time his piling up a list of prodigies in an unceasing fashion reflects not impatience or cynical bluntness, or any other affectation. The spectators now will find only one meaning in his rhetoric: he is very frightened. Thomas F. Van Laan observes that “the fearful, superstitious attitude Casca reveals towards the storm … suggests that his tough-guy pose” of the previous scene “may well be intended to conceal something a little less praiseworthy” than his enthusiasm for any “bold or noble enterprise” (1978, 158). Casca's fright affirms his respect for the omens and by implication his respect for Caesar who, the theatre audience senses, is associated with them.

Cassius—Caesar's opponent—prides himself on his immunity from the portents of the night. In his narrative he describes how he “walk'd about the streets,” “bar'd [his] bosom to the thunder-stone” and “when the cross blue lightning seem'd to open the breast of heaven [he] did present [himself] even in the aim and very flash of it” (I.iii.49-52). Wolfgang Clemen interprets Cassius's position:

[He insists] with elevated rhetoric on the search for the “true cause” … and uses the portents for his own purpose. … [He] sees in the nocturnal storm and in the omens an incitement to Caesar's murder, a sign of the indignation of Nature at Caesar's actions.

(1972, 52)

Cassius thus dislocates the meaning of the omens from the center in which fearful Casca has placed them in order to dislocate Caesar from the center of power.

In Act II, scene i, Brutus is able to read letters by the light of the lightning flashing in the sky. He shrugs off stoically the meaning of these cosmic disturbances (II.i.44-45) but for all this the scene in the orchard, in which the conspiracy is launched, is rich in moral overtones. By introducing the prominent trope of the layering of future on present and past, and past on present and future, this scene contributes fittingly to the irreconcilable dichotomies that can be said to animate the whole of Julius Caesar. Several antecedent and retrospective narratives of the assassination confuse the spectators' attitude to Caesar more and more. From the very beginning of the conspirators' commitment, Brutus assumes the role of a “metahistorian” and manipulates the cognitive act of the theatre audience's “seeing.” The ritualized aesthetic paradigm which he uses as a strategic interpretation for the future staging of the murder reveals him also as an endower of his stage audience with meaning. Contrary to his fellow-assassins who perceive Caesar only as a human, profane entity, Brutus initially acknowledges Caesar's incorporeal magnitude which could threaten the integrity of the Roman Republic. Caught in the paradox of his idealized reasoning, he wishes the assassins could separate the sacrum from the profanum in Caesar and kill his spirit without shedding his blood (II.i.166-171).

The irony of Brutus's narrative interpretation of an event which is yet to come lies in the fact that his allusion to ritual and ceremony aims at the spiritualization of the bloody performers of a violent act—and ironically, at the victim's expense:

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.


Alienated from the gory reality of the murder, the conspirators are to aspire to sacredness, substituting their greatness for Caesar's. In Brutus's narrative they will assume Caesar's place in heroic stature—and the heroic is an ultimate Roman value-concept. At this moment of the play, Brutus's expectation of grandeur diffuses the negative response of the onstage and offstage audiences to the pending assassination; in turn Brutus's grand vision will later be challenged by the mimesis of the act. This conflict between a diegetic assignment of moral meaning and a challenging mimetic reality is, of course, paradigmatic for the play as a whole.

Even if Harry Berger Jr., is right that “the performative use determines textual meaning, [and that] a reading of the playtext can never do more than lay out the ensemble of possibilities that underlie and enrich the selectivity of the performance” (1989, 5), the director who disregards the textual stage directions of Julius Caesar and tries to ritualize formally the assassination scene, will “evoke ridicule or involuntary laughter from the audience” (Taylor 1985, 19). Such a director, like Brutus in his antecedent staging of the event, does not take into consideration the human factor, real people witnessing responsively a mimetic act of murder.

Theatrical and performance criticism of this scene recognizes an escalating tension when the prophetic (diegetic) becomes the present (mimetic) in/of the assassination for both the conspirators and the spectators. Both the offstage and onstage audiences concentrate their attention on Casca as the first to deliver a blow against Caesar (III.i.30) and on Brutus the last, “the conspirator in whom we are most interested … as the moral focus of the event” (Taylor 1985, 25). The immediacy of the murder prevents a detached, evaluative response. Shakespeare's formulaic “They stab Caesar” (III.i.SD) results in a flurry of violence; but this brief mimetic moment is immediately succeeded and undercut by Caesar's laconic, resonant and poignant half line, “Then fall Caesar” (III.i.77). This half line as one critic says presents Caesar “greater—or more sympathetic” than anywhere else in the play (Andrews 1989, 146).

The immediate aftermath of the assassination forms a very significant mimetic moment in the development of the play. Here the newly-emerged factions—Republican and Caesarian—attempt to fill the political vacuum with their own charismatic stature. A shrewd manipulation of mimesis and diegesis becomes an ultimate ideological means by which the leaders of the factions manifest their powers and impair the powers of their opponents—Caesar's corpse constitutes an important point of reference in their representational and narrative ploys.

Cassius and Brutus diminish the moral value of Caesar's life by ritualizing his murder. Cassius relegates the figurative meaning of the assassination to future theatrical performances (III.i.111-113) while Brutus invites his friends to join him in a symbolic gesture, smearing their hands with Caesar's blood (III.i.105-107). In Brutus's narrative, which turns the murder into a myth, Caesar's past glories are forgotten, while Caesar's corporeal presence “no worthier than the dust” (III.i.116) finds a pragmatic use. Yet, Cassius's and Brutus's diegetic and mimetic manoeuvers are only partly successful. Their interpretations of the premeditated bloodshed and the mutilated body calm down the agitated minds of their colleagues—they need the psychotherapeutic balm of their historiographies. At the same time, distanced from the committed crime, the offstage audience may question the assassins' indifference to the value of human life and their disrespect for the dead body. There is, indeed, a stark discrepancy between what the audiences see and the interpretation Brutus is making of what they have seen moments before. The sight of Caesar's bleeding corpse embellished by diegetic interpretation is very disturbing; Octavius's servant, confronted with the mimetic reality, breaks down in the middle of his own narrative and tears come to his eyes (III.i.279-282).

Similar indifference to Caesar's life may be detected in Antony's first gesture toward the assassins. Though he has been portrayed as Caesar's confidant in Act I, scene ii, and as one whom Caesar affectionately teased about his social life in Act II, scene ii, here in Act III, scene i, after Caesar's death Antony appears at first in the scene of the murder only vicariously—through an intermediary who has essentially been programmed to speak for him. Whether Antony is devoted to his dead friend or whether he is only a self-seeking politician is a question that may trouble a spectator in this scene. The glimpses the audience has had of Antony early in the play have been most brief—a contemptuous characterization of him by Brutus prominent among them (II.ii.165). Now Antony takes on importance in the political world of Rome; whatever his motives, he is suddenly a major bidder for power in the void created by Caesar's death.

Treading on politically insecure ground, Antony never loses his head—he does not rush to the site of the murder but sends his servant who is to convince the assassins about Antony's willingness to ally himself with their cause. And he makes sure that his messenger does not make any spontaneous interpretation of his master's will; he stage-manages his spokesman so precisely that his narrative approaches mimesis, without the freedom that normally enables diegesis to take an interpretative slant.

Antony knows that he must flatter Brutus by giving the impression that he is engaged in creating Brutus's charisma. Making a powerful use of mimetic signals, he therefore emphasizes his own inferior position in relation to the power-wielding conspirators—Antony orders his servant to “kneel,” “fall down” and deliver his exact words “prostrate” (III.i.123-125). The narrative he has instructed his messenger to deliver begins with an exordium, catching Brutus's attention immediately—it appeals to those values which the leader of the conspiracy cherishes most: nobleness, wisdom, valiance and honesty (III.i.126). Since Antony cannot deny his affiliation with his dead friend, he vicariously contrasts his attitude to Brutus with his sense of Caesar, but he is careful not to over-emphasize his past allegiance. Antony affirms then his past respect and love for Caesar, prefacing his eulogy with the statement that he “fear'd” him (III.i.125). But even this tactical ploy is ambivalent, as “fear'd” has the positive and sacrum sense of “revered,” “was in awe of,” while it also has the negative and profanum sense of “trembled before.”

The self that Antony conveys through his elaborately coached messenger is submissive and ready to defect to the camp of the victors over Caesar. Ironically the tightness of Antony's “directions” and the servant's emphasis on those directions may suggest retrospectively to the theatre audience (as it does not to Brutus) that Antony is a crafty schemer, although in the mimetic moment the servant's impressive performance may postpone such an awareness. Indeed both the audiences are put here in the position of identifying with the speaker as his convincing “play” overwhelms their intellectual response.

Brutus and Cassius have just attempted, somewhat less than successfully, through ritual to draw attention away from the bleeding corpse of Caesar to the ideals that dictated the conspiracy against him. Now moments later, Antony's histrionic servant draws attention away from the same bleeding corpse—to the absent Antony. For all his scantily professed love of Caesar, Antony approves of this distraction, indeed planned it.

Mesmerized by the performative present, the conspirators lose an objective perception of Antony's narrative. His willingness to cooperate is taken at face value, and his reference to “the hazards of this untrod state” (III.i.136), which the alert theatre audience may interpret as his political condemnation of the assassination, is lost on his stage audience. The conspirators seem to concentrate only on Antony's hypothetical pledge of “true faith” (III.i.137) to the Republican cause, neglecting his implication that the conspirators killed the certainty and the stability of the Caesarian past when they stabbed Caesar, creating an as yet “untrod” future. Even Brutus, who in the past has diminished Antony as a person (II.i.165,181-183,185-189), changes his point of view and pays Antony a compliment:

Thy master is a wise and valiant Roman;
I never thought him worse.


The offstage and the onstage audiences will find this statement “I never thought him worse” ironic in light of II.ii.165 where Brutus contemptuously has referred to Antony as “a limb of Caesar.”

Brutus's conveniently short memory is shared in this scene by Cassius. The very man who has so recently advocated Antony's elimination agrees now to admit Antony into the newly created power structure:

Your voice shall be as strong as any man's
In the disposing of new dignities.


And his admission of Antony into the distribution of “new dignities” may recall to the minds of the audience Cassius's pragmatic frame of mind—in his antecedent and retrospective narrative Cassius never loses his touch with political reality—he knows what Antony intends to gain. Caesar's death means the creation of new charismatic positions couched in financial benefits.

With Antony's appearance at the site of the murder, the attention of the onstage and offstage audiences once more focuses on the immediate result of violence. His aim is to produce guilt in the assassins, as Maurice Charney says, by drawing attention to their “purpled hands” (III.i.158)—“the outward badge of their guilt” (1961, 54). But there is more: Antony tries to arouse guilt by emphasizing the semantic importance of the body of Caesar itself. Caesar's “Conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils [may be, as Antony observes] shrunk to this little measure,” his lifeless corpse (III.i.149). But that bloody corpse still has power—it eliminates Brutus's nearly successful attempt to detach the mimetic aftermath of the assassination from violent physicality.

Trying to preserve the assassins' dignity, Brutus and Cassius successively break into (III.i.164,211) Antony's emotional response which is taking full advantage of the theatrical aspect of the situation. And, since at that moment they are the wielders of moral and political power, Antony then “appears to agree with Brutus's notion about the limitations of [his] present vision” (Homan 1986, 93). His apology that he “was indeed sway'd from the point by looking down on Caesar” (III.i.218-219) is accepted by Brutus who is taken in by Antony's histrionic posture beside Caesar's corpse. Moreover, Brutus agrees to let him speak, significantly in a ritual, and tells Cassius that he himself will assure the Plebeians that there will be “all true rites and lawful ceremonies” (III.i.241) at Caesar's funeral. Imposing at this moment of the play his limited ritual point of view, and in effect ignoring the dead man's blood, Brutus unintentionally enlarges the vision of the offstage audience, convincing it (if it is not already convinced) that he himself has been rendered an unreliable narrator by his cast of mind. From this time onward Brutus will try to justify his own greatness, and implicitly the greatness of the conspirators, by creating the charisma of their heroic spirituality. He will entirely identify himself with the assassins.

It is only when Antony remains alone on the stage that he freely expresses his anguish over Caesar's death, praising him as “the noblest man that ever lived in the tide of times” (III.i.256-257). Yet, Shakespeare does not allow the spectators even now to fully identify themselves with Antony's narrative authority. The sense that he is sincere, imposed on the audience that hears his intimate soliloquy, is seriously threatened by the political expediency of the instructions Antony sends immediately afterward to Octavius (III.i.287-296). Juxtaposing an emotionally attractive soliloquy with a calculating political strategy following immediately is typical of the means Shakespeare uses in Julius Caesar to prevent the offstage audience's full engagement or detachment to a given narrator.

Shakespeare's handling of Brutus's and Antony's Forum orations may produce the same ambivalence in the theatre audience's response. Brutus's oration is, in fact, another instance of his self-assertive political/rhetorical methods. And his self-assertiveness is present in the repetitive solipsistic elevation of Brutus's own image,13 which the critics concentrating on his style (Hoey and Winter 1981, 315-339; Nathan 1982, 82-90), and on the soundness of his argument and the psychology of his persuasion (Lundholm 1938, 293-305; Crane 1951, 143-145) almost completely disregard. But it is not incidental that in 41 lines of Brutus's speech there are 23 personal and possessive pronouns referring to the speaker:

hear me for my cause. … Believe me for mine honour, and have respect to mine honour, that you may believe. Censure me in your wisdom. … If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of Caesar's, to him I say that Brutus's love to Caesar was no less than his. …

(III.ii.13-38ff; emphasis added)

Brutus outlines Caesar's merits in his speech, but thinking about his own political fate he denigrates Caesar by presenting him as over-ambitious, as a threat to Republicanism. Even Caesar's virtues are mentioned in a vague way as a sounding board for Brutus's own position, political and moral, in Rome. And Brutus's position is foregrounded—he is to be believed for his honour.

He never admits in this speech that in the past he actually loved Caesar or rejoiced at his glorious deeds. Expressing only his present state of mind, Brutus completely distances himself and seeks to distance the listeners from Caesar's past, which may be lingering in the tender memory of the Plebeians. Ironically, he breaks the rhetorical rules of the laudatio funebris, turning attention exactly away from the object and toward the speaker. The ideal teller of the virtus of a king should figuratively disappear from his own enunciated narrative (Marin 1988, 78-80); Brutus is, then, more a historian of his own merits than a historian of Caesar's.

A moment later, swept away by overbearing rhetoric and yet detached by a lurking awareness of some hidden agenda, the spectators cannot make a complete commitment to Antony any more than to Brutus. The historical strategy which Antony employs is effective. First of all he undercuts the reasoning of Caesar's assassins that he “was ambitious” (III.ii.27)—their rationale for Caesar's death—and that he was seeking the satisfaction of his personal aims rather than the public good. Antony attacks the conspirators' ideology by his constant repetition of the word “ambitious,” an adjective which he ridicules in his interpretation of Caesar's and the conspirators' actions (III.ii.81,88,92,95,100).

The political byplay that he and Caesar engaged in at the time of the Lupercalian rites supplies him with diegetic material for his indoctrination of the Roman Plebs (I.ii). Ignoring the rites themselves, Antony destroys for his agitated listeners the political implications which the assassins have earlier imposed on that event. According to them the manner in which Caesar rejected the offered crown revealed him as ambitious for a throne (I.ii). Now Antony selectively omits the manner of the refusal, concentrating entirely on the political and moral dimension of Caesar's behaviour, and he construes it as a sign of his Republican integrity. After all, Caesar waved away the royal emblem when he was presented “a kingly crown which he did thrice refuse” (III.ii.98-99). Beguiled by the attractiveness of his oratorical ploys, the onstage audience becomes easily coaxed into accepting Antony's assertion: “tis certain [Caesar] was not ambitious” (III.ii.115). Antony has thus effectively achieved his aim—he has expunged from the minds' of the Plebeians the conspirators' authority as the liberators of Rome from the supposedly tyrannous clutches of a power-seeking Caesar.

Controlling the disposition of his onstage listeners, Antony makes use of the staged assassination, imposing on it his own diegetic closure. Though Antony was cleverly excluded from the scene of Caesar's murder and afterward “fled to his house amaz'd” (III.i.96), he narrates with assured certainty the dramatized details of the scene at the Capitol. And he uses these details as punctuation when he exhibits the gashes in Caesar's mantle:

Look, in this place ran Cassius' dagger through:
See what a rent the envious Casca 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,
.....For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar's angel.
Judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar lov'd him.
This was the most unkindest cut of all;
For when the noble Caesar saw him stab,
Ingratitude, more strong than traitors' arms,
Quite vanquish'd him: then burst his mighty heart;
And in his mantle muffling up his face,
Even at the base of Pompey's statue
… great Caesar fell.


Presenting himself as an omniscient narrator, Antony assumes an authority over his subject matter from his stage audience's point of view; he focuses on the mimetic effect of the assassination, and this focus brings him an emotional involvement of his onstage public.

The spectators may, however, question the extent of his “omniscience” and indeed his candor, though his narrative follows precisely the events of the staged assassination at the Capitol. For a while the theatre audience may respond to Antony not as a mere narrator-character, one who possesses a limited vision of the dramatic world, but as the “implied narrator”—Shakespeare—as the “author-in-the-work” of Julius Caesar (cf. Uspensky 1973, 158-159). This unexpected intrusion of the author's total plot knowledge into the dramatic text intensifies the semiotic significance of Caesar's murder as staged. (Cf. Iser 1974, 288-289, for the principle). The authorial “presence” not only exposes the falsehood of Brutus's ritual interpretation of the events of the assassination but also makes the spectators vigilantly attentive to Antony's narratives. Straining their concentration on Antony's diegetic reliability helps the audience to realize that he regularly warps rituals into political opportunities. The Lupercalian rites and Caesar's funeral are two outstanding instances. It is therefore ironic that Shakespeare's dramaturgical manipulation of diegesis and mimesis subverts both Brutus—the ritualist—and Antony—the exploiter of rituals.

The shadow of political self-interestedness and dissimulation stays with the theatre audience for the rest of the play (Cf. Miola 1983, 105). The retrospective references to dead Caesar and to the mimetic presence of his spirit are turned into a means of self-fashioning, and are no less fashioned by the newly created centers of authority: the Republicans and the Caesarians. Each of the main characters of the play “desires to be more than he is. Each sees in the historical moment a challenge to himself to extend the bounds of his personal domain, to possess a larger being, to realize in himself the idea of the nobility of Rome” (Nevo 1972, 99).

The post-assassination dramatic world of Julius Caesar intensifies the interpretative memories of the onstage and offstage audiences who, engaged in an unceasing dialogic quest for the meaning of Caesar's stature, are constantly dislocated by the narratively and mimetically represented powers of his bodily absence. The strategic manipulation of his past value evokes the tension between Antony's and the conspirators' narratives on Caesar's murder, a tension which permeates the second part of the play.

If, as Northrop Frye suggests, the term “heroic” really implies “something infinite imprisoned in the finite” (1967, 5), the assassination of Caesar indeed creates “a moment of catastrophic self-deception” on the part of the conspirators (Brockbank 1989, 135). Contrary to their expectations, their murder strengthens Caesar's spirit, which, released from the imprisonment of its profane body, sets off on its long, phantasmal quest for revenge. William J. Rolfe's opinion that “[Caesar's] real share in the action of the play … begins with his death” (1893, 176) reflects the Victorian hyperbole of his rhetorical strategy; nevertheless even more than when alive, Caesar dead seems to shape powerfully the history of the Roman world.14

Antony seems to unleash the spiritual powers of Caesar in the antecedent narrative in which he predicts that “Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge” (III.i.270) will bring on the atrocities of civil war. Yet, unlike Richmond in Richard III, Antony receives no promise of future success from a spirit's immediate presence; and unlike Hamlet, Antony is never directly inspired by a spirit's calling. As if disbelieving the honesty of Antony's actions, the spirit seems to handle its personal revenge itself, assigning to Antony's and Octavius's army only the policing that an army can do. This lack of personal cooperation between Caesar's spirit (the force that manifests its authoritative punitive powers over the murderers) and Antony and Octavius (the force that assumes the charisma of this power) alienates the theatrical audience. The audience is put on guard not to identify itself with the spectacularly self-politicized revengers.

The ultimate cause of the defeat of Cassius and Brutus is the stealthy and ambient encroachment of Caesar's spirit over their doctrinaire minds. This is the spirit that Antony envisions in his soliloquy over Caesar's body: “And Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge, …” (III.i.270). The revenge it ranges for has a psychological, not physical, dimension—it is constantly a presence in the conspirators' minds. But, of course, there is the proximate cause, the armies, which Antony and Octavius head—though not in total unison. The doubleness of the vengeful forces arrayed against the conspirators draws the theatre audience's sympathy to them as underdogs, even as the spectators remember the reasons for revenge against them. Brutus and Cassius are separated morally and physically from Rome and they are both in imminent danger of alienation from one another. (Brutus is isolated by insulating grief for his lost wife).

Brutus and Cassius are fighting for their survival in the aftermath of the assassination, but Antony and Octavius are struggling also to survive in a dangerous world. The “proscription” scene and the “quarrel” scene (IV.i,IV.iii) manifest the capacity of Shakespeare's diegetic and mimetic strategies to arrange the spectators' response to the characters who are caught in the double web of history-making and history-experiencing. The principal characters behave as if they were history-makers, capable of assuming the charisma of Caesar. In reality, all of the characters to one extent or another are history-experiencers, pawns in a game played by Caesar's spirit.

If the audience had any doubts about Antony's attitude to Caesar, the “proscription scene” (IV.i) disperses them definitely. Amidst the urgent questions concerning the consolidation of powers against his Republican opponents, Antony never forgets about his own political stature—ironically at his dead friend's expense. He makes references to Caesar, but these references are far from an altruistic veneration of his memory. Antony's parsimonious intention to “cut off some charge in [Caesar's] legacies” (IV.i.9) is not calculated to perpetuate Caesar's greatness among the Roman Plebeians. At the same time Antony's reference to his “own” spirit governing Lepidus's “corporal motion” (IV.i.33) points out his egoistic appetite for his own transcendent sacredness.

Paradoxically Antony fashions himself as Caesar did before him. Blind to the implications of his political situation; he does not recognize the possible subversion of his powers by his close friend. Though Octavius demands concessions in the proscription without making any himself, and though Octavius assumes leadership in planning for the military campaign at the end of the scene, Antony plunges himself into an assumed charisma, seeing himself, as Caesar saw himself: the unchallenged center of a recently consolidated power.15 And he intends to exercise his rule in a more tyrannical and arbitrary way than Caesar did—ironically under the banner of his murdered friend's name. Suspicion of something less than honourable in Antony's vengeance for Caesar's death turns to reality in this scene of power consolidation in the Caesarian camp.

The “quarrel” scene presents another example of a power-in-the-making, this time from the Republican standpoint. Brutus's new and less subtle method of sustaining his dominance over Cassius is revealed to the audience in this mimetic moment. But since his moral position now lacks the authority that his philosophizing once conferred, his insistence on his worth is more blatant. Unable to escape Caesar's memory, Brutus, like Antony in the preceding scene, makes narrative references to Caesar, but only to achieve his own political aims. Chastizing Cassius for dubious methods of raising money, Brutus once more returns to his myth of the sacredness of Caesar's assassination—the assassination of “the foremost man of all this world” (IV.iii.18-26) [22]). Yet, his attempts to rise above the realities of financial affairs, and to exercize his authority by using the moral weapon of constancy to the conspirators' cause reveal him at his worst: Brutus is peevish, and unreasonable to an extreme degree.

Even before Cassius's arrival Brutus asserts himself as the leader of the Republican camp. He undermines his friend's authority by narrating to Pindarus—Cassius's servant—his master's insubordination (IV.ii.6-9). The spectators can also detect Brutus's political self-assertion in his insistence in front of “Cassius and his Powers” on discussing Cassius's grievances in private (IV.ii.41-47). His choice of terminology is suggestive: “I will give you audience,” he says—as a king does. Brutus purports to be sparing Cassius from the embarrassment of a public quarrel; yet he puts Cassius in the embarrassing position of an inferior. There is something devious, as well as high-handed, in his dealing here.

Cassius begins the argument in the tent by enumerating his grievances against Brutus:

That you have wrong'd me doth appear in this:
You have condemn'd and noted Lucius Pella
For taking bribes here of the Sardians;
Wherein my letters, praying on his side,
Because I knew the man, was slighted off.


His rationally balanced narrative stands in an opposition to the narrative style of his approach to Brutus in Act I, scene ii. The spectators may feel that Cassius projects security in his position within the power structure of Rome. His security does not, however, last long, since Brutus makes sure that Cassius understands who is at the center of political dominion.

Stylus arguit hominem. The style of Brutus's reprimand of Cassius recalls the style of his Forum speech, although these two speeches are different in mode: the former in prose, the latter in verse:

Remember March, the ides of March remember.
Did not great Julius bleed for justice's 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 we now
Contaminate our fingers with base bribes,
And sell the mighty space of our large honours
For so much trash as may be grasped thus?
I had rather be a dog, and bay the moon,
Than such a Roman.


Despite the ordering and reconstructing of the past that Brutus's narratives confer, he reveals here his unpleasant self-righteousness and his egocentric devotion to his own person, confirmed by his solipsistic locutions:

                                        I did send to you
For certain sums of gold, which you denied me;
For I can raise no money by vile means;
By heaven, I had rather coin my heart,
And drop my blood for drachmas, than to wring
From the hard hands of peasants their vile trash
By any indirection. I did send
To you for gold to pay my legions,
Which you denied me:

(IV.iii.69-77; emphasis added)

The theatre audience has heard this self-concern from him before—in the funeral oration.16

Brutus's stable linguistic style in narratives illustrates Ricoeur's general principle that “‘narrative repetition’ … means the ‘retrieval’ of our most fundamental potentialities, as they are inherited from our own past, in terms of a personal fate and a common destiny” ([1980] 1981, 179). Indeed, Brutus believes in the “retrieval” of his “most fundamental potentialities”—his leadership of the conspiracy and the sacredness of the assassination. Once he has decided on a course of action with its supposed consequences, he adheres to it as the only truth—his “personal fate and a common destiny.” No wonder the critics accuse Brutus of an excessive constancy to abstract idealistic reasoning, which he often formulates on the basis of false diegetic assumptions (Smith 1959, 373; Palmer 1970, 399-409; Rackin 1978, 40).

The variety of verbal and nonverbal signals which the spectators are exposed to mimetically in the “quarrel” scene may prevent them from exploring Brutus's narrative strategy aimed at curbing Cassius's political appetites. After the initial attempts at self-assertion, accompanied by outbursts of unrestrained anger (IV.iii.13-14,17,28-30,41), Cassius realizes that he cannot displace Brutus's belief in the charisma of his leadership of the Republican camp. After all, Cassius himself has set this belief in motion much earlier. It was he who implanted in Brutus the idea of Brutus's superiority by birth and social position (I.ii.156-159, I.iii.140-145). It was he who insisted on Brutus's moral and spiritual uniqueness so ardently that he infected the conspiracy with this orthodoxy. Caius Ligarius, for example, has invoked Brutus as “Soul of Rome” (II.i.321). Later in the play Cassius has by evasion twice accepted Brutus's priority of voice, however unreasonable his voice might have sounded (II.i.181-189, III.i.226-243), affirming thereby Brutus's complete control over the assassins.

Retreating to his position as second best in the Republican camp, Cassius takes refuge in a melodramatic gesture; he bares his bosom and offers Brutus his dagger:

I, that denied thee gold, will give my heart:
Strike, as thou didst at Caesar; for I know,
When thou didst hate him worst, thou lov'dst him better
Than ever thou lov'dst Cassius.


Although some critics see this gesture as Cassius's spontaneous reaction to Brutus's apparent withdrawal of friendship (Traversi 1963, 60-67; Leggatt 1988, 149), the body language implied by the text at this moment invites a more complex interpretation. Cassius's gesture can be read as an iconographic symbol of his total submission to Brutus. Shakespeare's theatre audience, aware of medieval cultural conventions as a modern audience is not, could read this gesture in terms of the medieval master/vassal relationship (cf. Geertz 1983, 106, for the principle); vassal Cassius accepts Brutus as the master of his life and death. Brutus sees this gesture as such, since his anger suddenly disappears and he is “cold again” (IV.iii.112).

The spectators will probably also notice that Cassius narratively extends his visual submission. The content of his narrative reveals his eagerness to escalate further Brutus's charisma.17 He seems in this exclamatory speech to recall that Brutus struck specifically at Caesar's heart: “I … will give my heart: strike, as thou didst at Caesar” (IV.iii.103-104). Yet Antony, after Plutarch, has insisted that the blow “was the most unkindest cut of all” (III.ii.185). Shakespeare makes no further reference to the “one wound” that Brutus gave Caesar “about his privities” (Henley 1896, 5:68), but informed members of an audience of Julius Caesar may find irony in Cassius's reference to Brutus and Caesar's heart. Here in Act IV, scene iii, as in so many places late in the play, Caesar and his assassination become a touchstone for the spectators' evaluation of the characters and for the characters' evaluation of themselves and others.

The encounter of the Caesarian and the Republican camps before the battle of Philippi is another assertion of the eternal presence of Caesar in the mimetic and diegetic dimensions of the play. Extending his previous historical account of the circumstances of Caesar's death, Antony aims at “radical subversiveness,” of the conspirators' charismatic authority, to apply Stephen Greenblatt's phrase (1981, 41-61). He does not attempt to seize their authority, but he challenges the principles upon which that authority stands. And thus Antony strikes at the assassins with a harsh narrative description of the scene in the Capitol:

                              when your vile daggers
Hack'd one another in the sides of Caesar:
You show'd your teeth like apes, and fawn'd like hounds,
And bow'd like bondmen, kissing Caesar's feet …


Since his ultimate goal is to re-ritualize Caesar's death at the expense of these assassins, Antony deprives them of their strength, the authority which they derive from the myth of their ritualized participation in the act in the Capitol. Subverting their spiritual image of themselves as priestly sacrificers, he denigrates them by turning them into butchers and vicious animals who mercilessly have torn their innocent prey to pieces.

Antony reinstalls Caesar at the center of power in Rome by recalling his veneration by the obsequious conspirators, who kissed Caesar's feet. Further, making diegetic use of the audience's earlier mimetic engagement in the assassination scene in which Brutus and Casca formed the two centers of dramatic interest, Antony now turns Brutus and Casca into the foremost objects of his attack:

In your bad strokes, Brutus, you give good words;
Witness the hole you made in Caesar's heart,
Crying, “Long live! hail, Caesar”
.....While damned Casca, like a cur, behind
Struck Caesar on the neck. O you flatterers!


Antony's interpretation of the moral facts of the assassination here constitutes a second instance of a kind of intertextuality (III.ii.175-180,183-191), a dialogue, as it were, between the mimetically once-represented event and the diegetic re-vision of that event.

The narrative impact of Antony's speeches is lost in the mimetic present of the flyting, especially in that the encounter reveals further an intended dissension in both the Republican and Caesarian camps. Cassius insults Antony (“a masker and a reveller,” V.i.61-62), but neither he nor Brutus makes any attempt to undermine the subjective narrative Antony has provided of the assassination. Instead, Cassius turns petulantly on Brutus:

Flatterers? Now Brutus, thank yourself.
This tongue had not offended so to-day,
If Cassius might have rul'd.


His indignation aims at Brutus's inefficiency as the leader of the Republicans, not at Antony as the narrative abuser. Cassius subverts, then, the authority of the man he promoted to dominate the conspiracy and the theatre audience might treat his comment as another example of Cassius's nostalgic pining for his own lost political dominion. The Caesarian camp is also a place of political rivalry. Octavius builds up his own image as “another Caesar” (V.i.54), but Antony, foolishly serene in his power as head of the Caesarian camp, leaves Octavius's politically challenging remark without any comment.

As the play goes on, the spectators become more and more aware that Caesar has been moulded by the characters of the play, consciously and unconsciously, into an icon of their subjective memories. The little that has been seen of Caesar on stage tends to pass away under the impact of the narratives used to achieve the speakers' aims. The narratives assume the function of his tomb, where Caesar subsists not as a decaying corpse but as a living spirit—the spirit which is, however, not free-willed but willed by their political biases.

Antony's diegeses on Caesar are perhaps most powerful, since his elocutionary skills, recurring so as to become quasi-formulaic, systematically destroy the conspirators' negative constructions of Caesar. And the theatre audience is constantly manipulated by Antony's rhetoric into seeing Caesar as the very personification of absolute power itself. He has portrayed Caesar as having acted independent of legions and logistics; now Caesar's spirit seems to Cassius and Brutus to exercize a power over them, their camp, and their cause, a power detached from other agencies. Like the living Caesar, whom the spectators know from the practices of his glorious past described in Antony's narratives, Caesar's spirit exercizes power on his own.

Yet, as his mimetic encounter with Brutus affirms, Caesar as a spirit also requires the active participation of his victims in heightening the charisma of his power. At first Brutus is not a willing participant; he undermines Caesar's importance by his indifference when the Ghost appears to him at Sardis (IV.iii.280-286). The Brutus of Act IV, scene iii, still feels that the mantle of Caesar's sacrum self has come to rest on his own shoulders after the assassination and that Caesar and his Spirit are now incidental.

This feeling of apparent indifference is slowly dispersed by the conspirators' growing insecurity. Eventually even they recognize Caesar's spirit as a part of the Other World, the world which the leaders of the plot refused to accept when they disregarded or misinterpreted in Caesar's lifetime the meaning of prodigies and omens. Their change of beliefs illustrates Clifford Geertz's assertion that in primitive societies “the existence of bafflement, pain, and moral paradox—of the Problem of Meaning—is one of the things that drives men toward beliefs in gods, devils, spirits, totemic principles, … but it is not the basis upon which those beliefs rest, but rather their most important field of application” (1973, 109).

Cassius, once the sturdiest Sceptic of the gods' interference in human affairs (Velz 1973, 256-259), and a man who arranged past events diegetically to make them mean what he wanted them to mean, is the first of the conspirators to apply the authority of the supernatural:

You know that I held Epicurus strong,
And his opinion; now I change my mind,
And partly credit things that do presage.
Coming from Sardis, on our former ensign
Two mighty eagles fell, and there they perch'd,
Gorging and feeding from our soldiers' hands,
Who to Philippi here consorted us.
This morning are they fled away and gone,
And in their steads do ravens, crows, and kites
Fly o'er our heads, and downward look on us,
As we were sickly prey; their shadows seem
A canopy most fatal, under which
Our army lies, ready to give up the ghost.


Indeed, Cassius is the man who undergoes at this moment of the play Geertz's spell of “bafflement, pain, and moral paradox,” turning to the supernatural in his dissatisfaction with his political position. Even his soldierly experience has been doubted, since he was made to obey Brutus's insistence on the time and manner in which the battle against Octavius' and Antony's armies is to be fought. His resigned narrative passage recalls to the minds of the theatre audience the mimetic representation of his humiliation in the military strategy conference at Sardis (IV.iii.195-224):

Give me thy hand, Messala:
Be thou my witness that against my will
(As Pompey was) am I compell'd to set
Upon one battle all our liberties.


Cassius's narrative explication of the birds' behaviour is, then, closely connected with the mimetic diminution of his powers within the Republican camp. But his comparison to Pompey aims at regaining his self-respect. He posits himself historically in a rank equal to that of one of the greatest heroes of the Roman Republic and, as Shakespeare's audience could know, one of the Nine Worthies.18

Later in the scene Cassius projects his insecurity on Brutus by asking him:

Then if we lose this battle,
You are contented to be led in triumph
Thorough the streets of Rome?


In his answer Brutus elevates his own value by referring to himself, as Caesar did, in the third person singular:

think not, thou noble Roman,
That ever Brutus will go bound to Rome;
He bears too great a mind.


Conscious of the fact that the clock of his history began ticking at the moment of Caesar's fall at the Capitol, he refers to this moment and predicts his own suicide in case of defeat (V.i.113-114), changing his previous philosophical stand on this matter.

The mimetic tension of the approaching battle might cloud the importance of Cassius's and Brutus's narrative anxiety over their fate in the case of defeat. Expressing their apprehension over the possibility of being led in triumph in Rome after Antony's and Octavius's hypothetical victory, Cassius and Brutus subconsciously equate them with the mighty Caesar himself who came “in triumph over Pompey's blood” (I.i.51). This is the first instance in the play when they implicitly engage themselves in the making of the charisma of Antony and Octavius.

Cassius's and Brutus's attempts to disengage their deaths from the intervention of Antony and Octavius, men of a calibre smaller than that of Caesar, can be interpreted in two ways. Their narrative references to Caesar's spirit help them to justify their own political failure, unavoidable in the light of the divine power of Caesar's greatness. Michel Foucault has written that historically the ritualized public executions of traitors were to reveal “the unrestrained presence of the sovereign. … [It] did not reestablish justice; but it reactivated power” (1977, 49). Subconsciously, then, Brutus and Cassius also attribute to Caesar royal prerogatives, the prerogatives they were so afraid of. As happens in the case of an attempted assassination punished by a king who has escaped it, the narrative presence of Caesar's spirit in the moments of the suicides of Cassius and Brutus becomes a semiotic sign of Caesar's sovereign power.

The dramatic structure of the circumstances preceding Cassius's death follows to a certain extent his temptation of Brutus (I.ii). Placed in the position of a witness of the offstage action—near mimesis, he tries to find the meaning of events he cannot see. This time, however, his misconstruing “everything” (V.iii.84)19 is fatal, while the mimetic focusing on his suicide goes hand in hand with his narrative affirmation of the power of Caesar's spirit. He asks his servant Pindarus:

                                                                                with this good sword,
That ran through Caesar's bowels, search this bosom.
Stand not to answer. Here, take thou the hilts,
And when my face is cover'd, as 'tis now,
Guide thou the sword.—Caesar, thou art reveng'd,
Even with the sword that kill'd thee.


Brutus also dies with Caesar's name on his lips: “Caesar, now be still; I kill'd not thee with half so good a will” (V.v.50-51). And though later in reporting his death, Strato does not attribute it to Caesar's spirit but to Brutus's own will, he does deny the military action of Antony and Octavius any credit for this morally significant event: “For Brutus only overcame himself, and no man else hath honour by his death” (V.v.56-57). Brutus was as specific about the ultimate cause of Cassius's suicide as he later was about his own:

O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!
Thy spirit walks abroad, and turns our swords
In our own proper entrails.


The immediacy of the mimetic presence of Cassius's and Brutus's deaths is intensified by their narrative references to their pasts. At these climactic moments of the play Shakespeare places the audiences in the position of narratively and mimetically engaged participants in the action. Trying to find help in their suicides, both Cassius and Brutus use their pasts to manipulate the responses of the onstage and offstage audiences. Cassius reminds his servant:

In Parthia did I take thee prisoner;
And then I swore thee, saving of thy life,
That whatsoever I did bid thee do,
Thou shouldst attempt it. Come now, keep thine oath.


Brutus appeals to Volumnius's school sentiments:

                                                                                                    Good Volumnius,
Thou know'st that we two went to school together;
Even for that our love of old, I prithee
Hold thou my sword-hilts, whilst I run on it.


Extending the dramatic world of the play, they present themselves for the first time as men with personal, and not only political histories. They suddenly are frail, human individuals, not charismatic leaders of the nation. This new side of Brutus's and Cassius's portrayal makes it easier for anyone sitting in the audience to see her/himself in their place.

As Brutus is paired with Cassius, he is contrasted with Antony, once more in the late scenes of the play. Brutus remains the self-conscious ritualist he was at the time of the assassination, while Antony finds a pragmatic use for ritual as he has done before. The style and structure of Brutus's (V.iii.99-106) and Antony's (V.v.68-75) eulogies reveal the difference between the personalities and oratorical skills of these two opponents. Brutus's brevity in the praise he gives to dead Cassius could possibly be justified by the tactical needs of the war:

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

(V.iii.99-103; emphasis added)

However, his own overwhelming presence in the speech once more indicates that Brutus is, first of all, interested in the perpetuation of his own history, even in the moment of emotional crisis. In short, once more the displacement of the subject (Cassius) in the narrative reveals the personal as opposed to the public dimension and demeanour of the speaker (Brutus). The theatre audience in face of this displacement is more likely to be moved by the mimetic portrayal of the waste of a human life than by the diegetic moment in which Brutus wanders from the awesome present to the indeterminate future.

In contrast, Antony's eulogy over Brutus's body, like his previous public speeches, concentrates on his subject and appeals to the emotions of the listeners:

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!”


The truth of his rendering of Brutus's character is left for the spectators to decide. By this time in the play they have had enough experience to perceive the dissimulative mode of Antony's rhetoric, and have had enough mimetic material to form their own point of view.

The ending of the play belongs to Octavius, who also comments on Brutus's death: “According to his virtue let us use him, with all respect and rites of burial” (V.v.76-77). The rest of his imperial speech concentrates on the events of the nearest future. He is, indeed, a shrewd politician, who realizes the importance of “the evening of victory.”20

Julius Caesar is forgotten in the last words of the play. The present and the future are the arena of the newly emerged power, and this newly emerged power seems to know how to preserve itself by the narrative orchestration of charisma.


  1. Marullus's narrative passage imposes also the local flavour of Rome as the historical background of the events to come. It introduces urbs Romae and its sempiterna attributes: “conquests,” “chariots,” “streets of Rome,” “Tiber.” The word “Rome” reverberates throughout his speech. Moreover, the speech evokes the feeling permeating the dramatic world of the play 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” (Velz 1982, 58).

  2. Many critics have noticed the cloudiness of the dramatic vision of the play and have found the effect it produces as deliberate, offering a variety of reasons: Ernest Schanzer connects it with characters and relates it to the perception of the play (1955, 297-308); Mildred E. Hartsock says that Shakespeare used this dialectic technique of presenting moral and political problems to explore the divergent, contradictory, and relative “truths” of human existence (1966, 56-62); Rene E. Fortin regards it as a purposeful experiment in point of view, intended to reveal the limitation of human knowledge (1968, 341-347); Lynn de Gerenday explains the play's ambivalence in “the way such formal devices as rhetoric and ceremony (reinforced by an emphasis on play-acting) bind and distance love and hostility from conscious expression” (1974, 25); Lawrence Danson finds the linguistic and ritualistic confusions of Julius Caesar as the main source of the problems of communication and expression in this tragedy (1974, 50-67). Harley Granville-Barker disposes, however, of the whole matter by suggesting that in 1599, when Shakespeare wrote the play, he was still struggling for adequate dramatic means, and that it is an imperfectly constructed play ([1947] 1959, 350-352).

  3. For further implication of the “Colossal” in drama cf. Chapter Three, note 21 and accompanying text.

  4. Plutarch devotes more than half of his Life of Julius Caesar to the presentation of his achievements in war and peace (Henley 1896, 5:2-60). Shakespeare's omission of these facts seems to be a deliberate strategy aimed at heightening the ambiguity of the play.

  5. The popularity of Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives in the English Renaissance (cf.: MacCallum 1910, 141-167; Shackford 1929, 5-6, 19-45) gives some confidence that the more intellectual part of Shakespeare's audience saw through the duplicity of Antony's account of this part of the Gallic wars. The modern playgoer is likely to find him/herself in the position of the less well-read groundlings at Shakespeare's theatre. Only those members of the audience who possess extra-textual knowledge of the Roman history can understand the craftiness of Antony's rhetoric.

  6. Yet, Cassius is not consistent in his use of the third-person style in this narrative passage. He impetuously backs into the first person in several places, signifying his egoism (I.ii.104,114,119,123).

  7. Throughout this book the analysis of present tense in past tense narratives follows Nessa Wolfson's stylistic interpretation of anacoluthon. She reasons that the sudden intrusion of present tense into past tense narratives in literature makes narratives vivid, since it causes the action being recounted to appear to the listener (or to the reader) as if it were happening at the moment of telling. The narrators, in telling their stories, become so involved in the art of narrating that they imagine themselves reliving the events in question and recount them as if at the scene of action. The altered tense may also have the effect of focusing attention on an event or point in the story that the speaker (the implied author of the work) wishes to dramatize (1981, 226-231). It is pertinent in this context to notice that Shakespeare's use of anacoluthon in Calphurnia's narrative on the events preceding Caesar's death (II.ii.13-26) has been misunderstood by some editors of Julius Caesar, who have emended “fight” to “fought” and “do neigh” to “did neigh,” obliterating Shakespeare's stylistic ploy in this passage.

  8. The clash between the profane and sacred aspects of Caesar forms the basis of the play's binary evaluation of his moral and political stature. For instance Cassius's narrative in scene ii, Act I centers on Caesar's profane side, while Antony's Forum address to the Plebs in scene ii, Act III, in some sense counterbalances this image by insisting on Caesar's spirit, his sacred side.

  9. Caesar's imperious style may also be explained as his attempts “to convert [his] … unofficial military title [imperator] into an official political one” (Velz 1982, 66).

  10. For instance, Calphurnia abruptly reprimands him, “Your wisdom is consum'd in confidence” (II.ii.49).

  11. Muriel C. Bradbrook says that where a situation is already inescapable by means of human choice, Shakespeare introduces the omens that indicate “a sympathetic response from Nature, a sensitive reaction in the macrocosm, more like an Early Warning system than a Messenger of Heavenly Wrath” (1969, 109).

  12. It was probably his success in Julius Caesar at integrating the supernatural with the deepest meanings of the action (a first in the canon) and making them a dramaturgical element of the play that encouraged Shakespeare to venture on portents in an even more complex way in his later plays: Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth. In those plays the omens overtly enlarge human matters to a macrocosmic, almost apocalyptic dimension.

  13. Gordon Ross Smith lists fourteen instances of the egocentric wilfulness of Brutus (1959, 367-379); however, Mildred E. Hartsock disagrees with his interpretation of the passages and gives instances where Brutus is not willful or egocentric. The discrepancies in critics' reception of Brutus's character result probably from the fact that, as Hartsock says, “one responds to Brutus in partibus, not in toto.” I would, however, disagree with her point that “this difficulty of assembling Brutus” as a character is connected with Shakespeare's presentation of Brutus “as a living, complex human being … not found in Plutarch” (1966, 60). The analysis offered here invites an assumption that the ambiguous perception of Brutus is inseparable from the mimetic and diegetic modes of the play.

  14. The idea of Caesar's fame after his death is already present in Shakespeare's Richard III, where a precocious little boy, Prince Edward, says:

    This Julius Caesar was a famous man;
    With what his valor did enrich his wit,
    His wit set down to make his valor live.
    Death makes no conquest of this conqueror,
    For now he lives in fame, though not in life.


  15. Octavius undermined Antony's political status by his shrewd action that he undertook in coming to Rome (III.ii.266), despite Antony's other plans for him (III.i.290-296). Yet while at that moment of the play Antony's blindness could be excused by his excitement at the furious climax of his Forum oration, here, in the “proscription scene,” when Octavius again ventures to assert himself in his relation with Antony, his political machinations are too obvious to be missed.

  16. In addition to the recurring myth of the ritualized assassination and Brutus's solipsism, the analogies between these two narrative speeches cover major rhetorical matters: balance, type of sentence structure, important words used in opposition to a harmonious group. Instead of the imperatives which he relied on in the Forum scene, Brutus constructs the first part of his narrative in the “quarrel” scene out of interrogatives, expanding them by adjectivals and reaching a climax with a conditional. There is also repetition of phrases, even alliteration.

  17. To a certain extent Brutus imposes his control over the situation by putting into practice the well-known fact, expressed by Louis Marin: “The stronger man … is stronger only through the annihilation of the less strong man, but the stronger man is also such only by enslaving the latter, that is, in making him work for him” (1988, 27). Cassius reduces himself to such a position.

  18. Shakespeare must have been fascinated by the figure of Pompey the Great because though he never made him the hero of a play, he often refers to him and his greatness (cf. Love's Labour's Lost, Measure for Measure, Henry V, Antony and Cleopatra). In Julius Caesar the figure of Pompey is inseparable from the most important events of the play, including the location of the assassination itself. It would probably be too far fetched to understand Pompey's recurring presence in a wider context of revenge, as Plutarch does (Henley 1896, 5:68; 6:197) nevertheless he is mimetically and diegetically incorporated within the dramatic world of the play. Four of ten references to him belong to Cassius (I.iii.127,147,152; V.i.75), Marullus mentions him three times (I.i.37,47,51), Brutus once (III.i.115), Antony once (III.ii.183), and Metellus Cimber once (II.i.216).

  19. Rene E. Fortin believes that the concept of misconstruing “includes much more than the immediate situation surrounding the suicide. For to some degree the central action of misconstruing touches all the characters of the play” (1968, 345). It also touches the audience, which struggles to find a solid ground for its epistemological perception of the dramatic situation presented.

  20. Louis Marin says in another context that “the evening of victory … is once, but always and ever after, the moment of domination, of the end of the war and of the definition of the strongest part as the dominant part … the masters pose themselves as institutors of continuity.” (1988, 35)

List of Works Cited

Primary Texts:

All citations from Shakespeare's three major Roman plays are taken from the New Arden Editions:

Julius Caesar. 1955. Ed. T. S. Dorsch. London: Methuen, 1986.

All citations from Shakespeare's other works are taken from:

The Complete Works of Shakespeare. 1951. Ed. David Bevington. Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman, 1980.

All citations from Plutarch are taken from W. E. Henley, ed. Plutarch's “Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans” Englished by Sir Thomas North, Anno 1579. Vol. 1-6. London: David Nutt in the Strand, 1895-1896.

Secondary Texts:

Bradbrook, M. C. Shakespeare: The Craftsman. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1969.

[Danson, L.] Tragic Alphabet: Shakespeare's Drama of Language. New Haven: Yale UP, 1974.

Fortin, R. E. “Julius Caesar. An Experiment in Point of View.” Shakespeare Quarterly 19 (1968): 341-347.

Gerenday de, L. “Play, Ritualization, and Ambivalence in Julius Caesar.Literature and Psychology 1 (1974): 24-33.

[Granville-Barker, H.] Prefaces to Shakespeare. 1947. Vol. 2. Princeton, Princeton UP, 1959.

Hartsock, M. E. “The Complexity of Julius Caesar.PMLA 81 (1966): 56-62.

MacCallum, M. W. Shakespeare's Roman Plays and Their Background. London: Macmillan, 1910.

Marin, L. Portrait of the King. Trans. Martha M. Houle. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1988.

Schanzer, E. “The Problem of Julius Caesar.Shakespeare Quarterly 3 (1955): 297-308.

Shackford, M. H. Plutarch in Renaissance England With Special Reference to Shakespeare. Wellesley: Wellesley College, 1929.

Smith, G. R. “Brutus, Virtue, and Will.” Shakespeare Quarterly 10 (1959): 367-79.

[Velz, J. W.] “‘Orator’ and ‘Imperator’ in Julius Caesar. Style and the Process of Roman History.” Shakespeare Studies 15 (1982): 55-75.

Wolfson, N. “Tense-Switching in Narrative.” Language and Style: An International Journal 14 (1981) 226-31.


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Last Updated on July 28, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 895

Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar contains elements of both Shakespeare's histories and tragedies, and has been classified as a “problem play” by some scholars. Set in 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 emperor's demise, however, is not the primary concern for critics of Julius Caesar; rather, most critics are interested in the events surrounding the act—the organization of the conspiracy against Caesar and the personal and political repercussions of the murder. Shakespeare's tragedies often feature the death of the titular character at the play's end. Many commentators have noted that Julius Caesar's unusual preempting of this significant event—Caesar is killed less than halfway through the play—diminishes the play's power early in the third act. Scholars are interested in the play's unconventional structure and its treatment of political conflict, as well as Shakespeare's depiction of Rome and the struggles the central characters face in balancing personal ambition, civic duty, and familial obligation. Modern critics also study the numerous social and religious affinities that Shakespeare's Rome shares with Elizabethan England.

Shakespeare's ambiguous portrayal of Brutus and Caesar, the central figures of Julius Caesar, often complicates analyses of their respective roles in the play. Maurice Charney (1996) sees Brutus as an essentially sympathetic figure whose tragedy stems from sacrificing his private self to public concerns. Charney likens Shakespeare's portrayal of Caesar to the playwright's depiction of Richard II. Charney contends that Shakespeare attempted to control the audience's reaction to Caesar, portraying him first as an “insolent king” then, after his death, as a “tragic victim.” Vivian Thomas (see Further Reading) finds both Brutus and Caesar flawed. Thomas contends that both men demonstrate poor judgment at critical moments, succumb to societal pressures, and ultimately become victims of faulty self-assessment. René Girard (1991) describes the relationship between Brutus and Caesar in different terms, likening Brutus to a lover who finds the object of his affection (Rome) with another lover (Caesar). Krystyna Kujawinska-Courtney (1993) argues that the play's treatment of Julius Caesar's character is focused on whether Caesar should be viewed as insolent, impious, and imperfect, or as sacred and idolized. Kujawinska-Courtney contends that Shakespeare's manipulation of his character “shakes the audience's confidence that either Caesar is the correct one.” Mary Hamer (1998) compares Portia's role in Julius Caesar with that of Calpurnia, and examines the ways in which the education of women and the Roman conception of marriage contribute to the fate of the Roman wives. Hamer suggests that Portia's education, along with the expectation that she suppress it, contributes to her suicide, and finds that Calpurnia's lack of an education allows her a certain freedom of expression that Portia does not possess.

Julius Caesar's dynamic characters and political implications have inspired numerous stage and film adaptations. Anthony Miller (2000) examines Joseph Mankiewicz's 1953 film version of the play, which features Marlon Brando as Antony. Miller contends that the production is layered with political innuendo, and argues that Mankiewicz's adaptation cannot be classified simply as a cold war propaganda piece or as an anti-McCarthyist statement. The film draws parallels between the Roman Empire and the United States in the early 1950s, Miller maintains, in that both Rome and the United States can be described as classical republics and as centers of a worldwide empire. Bruce Weber (2000) reviews the 2000 stage production of Julius Caesar directed by Barry Edelstein. Like a number of other reviewers, Weber finds the production disappointing and unmoving. Weber praises only Jeffrey Wright's portrayal of Marc Antony, and contends that the other performances focused on obvious overt personality traits rather than internal emotional and psychological struggles. Charles Isherwood (2000) similarly applauds Wright's performance, describing the rest of the production as lukewarm at best. David Barbour (2000), on the other hand, praises the set design and finds the production as a whole swiftly paced and controlled.

Many critics associate Julius Caesar and its treatment of Rome with Shakespeare's England. Although Northrop Frye (see Further Reading) cautions that Shakespeare's tragedies are reflective of Elizabethan society only to a limited extent, the critic finds similarities between the depiction of social order in Julius Caesar and the social order of Elizabethan England. Barbara L. Parker (1995) identifies a different connection between the play and Elizabethan England. Contending that Elizabethan Protestants viewed Rome as the seat of power of the Catholic Antichrist, Parker suggests that Julius Caesar may be read as a satire of Papal Rome, in which Caesar represents the Antichrist. Parker explains that Shakespeare seemed to imply that the mob's worship of Caesar closely resembles Roman Catholic worship of the Pope. Charney suggests reading Julius Caesar within the context of Shakespeare's English history plays, which he finds contain “a reflection of the realities of Elizabethan England.” David Daniell (see Further Reading) concurs, arguing that the question of the morality of rebellion, which is a central concern of the English history plays, is treated in a more intensely dramatic way in Julius Caesar. In addition, Daniell lists several parallels between Queen Elizabeth I and Caesar the tyrant. Like Charney and Daniell, R. A. Yoder (1973) finds an association between Rome and England. Yoder maintains that Rome and the England of Shakespeare's history plays may be viewed as studies of disintegration and the progression of power, and finds that Shakespeare depicted both Rome and England as empty and wasted.

R. A. Yoder (essay date summer 1973)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8780

SOURCE: Yoder, R. A. “History and the Histories in Julius Caesar.Shakespeare Quarterly 24, no. 3 (summer 1973): 309-27.

[In the following essay, Yoder characterizes Julius Caesar as a condensed version of Shakespeare's historical tetralogy (Richard II, Henry IV, Parts One and Two, and Henry V). Yoder relates Julius Caesar's Rome to England during the time of the tetralogy and demonstrates how both Shakespeare's Rome and England are plagued by disintegration and the unstoppable progression of power.]

Henry the Fifth, thy ghost I invocate …
A far more glorious star thy soul will make
Than Julius Caesar or bright—

(1H6, I.i.52-56)1


Julius Caesar, a play remarkable for an infinite variety of interpretation, was the turning point of Shakespeare's career. As much as it points ahead to the great tragedies, Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth, so much does it draw upon the cycle of history plays that Shakespeare had recently completed. The legacy of these histories is illuminated if we can imagine Julius Caesar as the whole drama of the tetralogy telescoped into one play: Rome, like Shakespeare's England during the reigns of Richard II and Henry IV, is a study of continuous disintegration and the inevitable progress of power—what Warwick describes to Henry IV as “the necessary form” of things that allowed Richard to prophesy, or “guess,” what was to come:

There is a history in all men's lives
Figuring the nature of the times deceas'd;
The which observ'd, a man may prophesy,
With a near aim, of the main chance of things
As yet not come to life, who in their seeds
And weak beginnings lie intreasured.

(2H4, III.i.80-85)

It is what Jan Kott calls the “Grand Mechanism” of history, according to which the Percies would play Bolingbroke to Bolingbroke's Richard. It is the ultimate historicism, where everything can be explained in terms of the historical process, but the process is circular and absurd.2

In Julius Caesar the necessary form of things is called “a tide in the affairs of men.” Brutus, in this moment before Philippi, forgets that tides must also fall. But the metaphor is appropriate for the play: Caesar rose and fell, so will Brutus, so ultimately will Antony. These great men, and Cassius too, are presented in brilliantly individualized portraits whose contrasts have delighted character analysts over several centuries. As significant as the contrasts, however, are parallels of gesture and action among these very different characters, particularly between Caesar and Brutus who are the heads of their respective factions. Characters in the play become reflections of each other, as Cassius says, in their first interview, that he will be a mirror for Brutus:

Tell me, good Brutus, can you see your face?
No, Cassius; for the eye sees not itself
But by reflection, by some other things.


What recommends Cassius for this role is the quality he and Brutus share in contrast to Antony: they are withdrawn and serious types, not lavish and reveling in their affections like the sportier Antony who frequents plays and banquet tables. The more familiar distinction between the noble Brutus and the scheming Cassius emerges in the following soliloquy. Cassius hypothetically exchanges roles with Brutus to show that he would never be manipulated.

Caesar doth bear me hard; but he loves Brutus.
If I were Brutus now, and he were Cassius,
He should not humour me.


Yet whenever their positions are reversed, whenever Brutus urges a case upon Cassius after the conspiracy has been formed, Cassius is, if not “humoured,” always brought round to Brutus' side, acceding against his better judgment in the fatal decisions to spare Antony and to force the battle at Philippi. Perhaps Cassius too needs a mirror to discover the self he knows not of. He lacks self-awareness, most painfully when he glories in recounting how he, like Aeneas, rescued Caesar. The intensity of his indignation, similar to the high pitch of Iago's excitement when he fabricates Cassio's dream, reveals too much: how Cassius yearns for the “honours” Caesar receives instead of the “honour” that he tells Brutus is the subject of his story. Like Iago, Cassius is tortured by a sense of inferiority or impotency that he sometimes bitterly acknowledges and otherwise fiercely denies. Here he denies it, and since he believes himself Caesar's equal, there is no reason why Caesar is a “god” and Cassius a “wretched creature.” Cassius should be a god, too, at least as celebrated as Caesar and Aeneas. In a way he will be, but only after his inability to take charge and the full failure of his self-confidence are clearly revealed.

It has often been said that although Caesar is killed, the spirit of Caesar dominates the remaining action of the play. Cassius and Brutus die by the hands that killed Caesar, with Caesar's name on their lips:

Caesar, thou art reveng'd,
Even with the sword that kill'd thee.


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


These words confirm the numerous parallels that relate the chief conspirators to the man they conspired against. Cassius first suggests that Brutus is Caesar's equal:

Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that “Caesar”?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Write them together, yours is as fair a name;
Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well;
Weigh them, it is as heavy; conjure with 'em,
“Brutus” will start a spirit as soon as “Caesar”.


Then, on the morning of the assassination, Brutus and Caesar appear in a similar light:3 both are awakened by a group of well-wishers who finally prevail upon them to go to the Capitol. It is their common fate to be torn from their private beds and thrust into public affairs. As public men they respond to honor, but they are also susceptible to flattery—thus Brutus is flattered by Cassius, Caesar by Decius. As public men they must be supremely confident, avoiding whatever may hint of cowardice, through some, like Calpurnia, might call it wisdom. So Brutus disdains an oath in order to dramatize the purity of his cause, perhaps even to reassure himself about a course of action he does not relish. And Caesar puts aside all the auguries because he would not bear the “shame of cowardice.” Caesar, too, in his images of the elder lion (II.ii.46) and the northern star (III.i.60) boasts so extravagantly that it seems he must persuade himself as well as others.

Caesar and Brutus are both honorable men, though hardly invincible or free from personal weaknesses. It is Caesar's ambition that traditionally sets him apart from Brutus, yet this quality is not pronounced in the play. It does figure, however, in the parallel between the two characters after Caesar's death, and then with a terrible irony. Brutus, in his careful, symmetrical prose, has shown the reason for Caesar's death—ambition: “As he was ambitious, I slew him.” Then in a figurative and characteristically hypothetical way he invites the populace to put him, Brutus, in Caesar's place:

Then none have I offended. I have done no more to Caesar than you shall do to Brutus. … With this I depart, that, 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.37-38, 45-48)

Brutus, a little less flamboyantly than Caesar, nevertheless like Caesar offers his throat to the people (cf.I.ii.262). His supposition, and the principle he espouses, are beyond them; but they respond to this show of pure virtue by literally accepting his invitation:

… Live, Brutus! live! live!
Let him be Caesar.
                                                                      Caesar's better parts
Shall be crown'd in Brutus.

(III.iii.49, 52-53)

Here most powerfully the necessary form of things, the Grand Mechanism, is at work. Neither Brutus nor the citizens are fully conscious of what they say, yet the audience sees the force of history unroll: another Bolingbroke must replay Richard's part.4

Thereafter Caesar preys upon the minds of Brutus and Cassius until his ghost haunts Brutus the night before the battle. And it begins to dawn on us that both the major conspirators are casting themselves in their victim's role. Comparisons with Caesar are prominent in the Quarrel Scene. First, Cassius complains that Caesar would never have treated him as Brutus has. Then, in Caesar's gesture already repeated by Brutus, Cassius offers to resolve their dispute by his own death:

                                                                      There is my dagger,
And here my naked breast. …
Strike, as thou didst at Caesar, for I know,
When thou didst hate him worst, thou lov'dst him better
Than ever thou lov'dst Cassius.

(IV.iii.99-100, 104-106)

Cassius puts first Brutus, then himself in Caesar's place. In this scene it is Brutus' manner, most of all, that recalls Caesar, for this is his most imperious and probably least attractive mood. Caesar to Metellus Cimber, Brutus to Cassius—they are lead weights, “constant,” “unassailable,” “unshak'd of motion” (III.i.60, 69-70); they will not be moved. Brutus lashes out at Cassius,

Must I give way and room to your rash choler?
.....                                                                                                              Must I budge?
Must I observe you? Must I stand and crouch
Under your testy humour? By the gods,
You shall digest the venom of your spleen,
Though it do split you; for, from this day forth,
I'll use you for my mirth, yea, for my laughter,
When you are waspish.

(IV.iii.39, 44-50)

Brutus reduces Cassius to his court jester, the “common laughter” that Cassius would not be taken for (I.ii.71), and dismisses him with Caesar's extravagant confidence:

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.


When the two conspirators, now reconciled, make their formal farewell to each other before the battle, Brutus is still sanctimonious about his own worth:

No, Cassius, no: think not, thou noble Roman,
That ever Brutus will go bound to Rome;
He bears too great a mind.


And then he echoes Caesar once more:

                                        O, that a man might know
The end of this day's business ere it come!
But it sufficeth that the day will end,
And then the end is known.


With the same stoic feeling, somewhere between calm and indifference, Caesar went to the Capitol, and so Brutus faces the death of Portia, the ghost of Caesar, and the battle at Philippi.

If Caesar's ambition would have him crowned, Brutus is, in the last scenes of the play, emotionally crowned by his own righteousness. Familiarly in Shakespearean tragedy the crown, actual or figurative, works the progressive isolation of its wearer.6 Caesar and Brutus isolate themselves, despite their protestations of loyal friendship, and entrench themselves as they approach their ends in a cold and insular fatalism. Cassius is also crowned in the play, though ironically, because it is only after death and after Cassius has suffered not just a decline but an ignominious reversal. He would have been equal to Caesar but he is reduced to a “common laughter.” Like Iago who tells Roderigo, “'Tis in ourselves, that we are thus, or thus,” Cassius knew where the fault lies—“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings” (I.ii.138-39). “We are govern'd with our mothers' spirits,” Cassius explained to Casca, Romans under the yoke of Caesar have grown “womanish” (I.iii.83-84); indeed, Caesar himself once cried “as a sick girl” (I.ii.127) and for that Cassius despised him. Yet “womanish” aptly describes Cassius under the yoke of Brutus in the Quarrel Scene,7 and, as Cassius himself reminds us, his mother's spirit, “that rash humour which my mother gave me,” governs his mood (IV.iii.119).

Even the most dramatic reversal in Cassius is also a parallel between himself and Caesar. Earlier Cassius had remarked to the conspirators how Caesar changed toward the end of his life:

                                                  But it is doubtful yet
Whether Caesar will come forth to-day or no;
For he is superstitious grown of late,
Quite from the main opinion he held once
Of fantasy, of dreams, and ceremonies.


And Caesar did consult the augurs and all the portents, though he finally put them aside. Just so, Cassius who would not blame the stars trembles at the omens before Philippi; his words bespeak his alteration:

You know that I held Epicurus strong,
And his opinion; now I change my mind,
And partly credit things that do presage.
Coming from Sardis, on our former ensign
Two mighty eagles fell, and there they perch'd,
Gorging and feeding from our soldiers' hands,
Who to Philippi here consorted us.
This morning are they fled away and gone,
And in their steads do ravens, crows, and kites
Fly o'er our heads, and downward look on us,
As we were sickly prey …


He does “but believe it partly,” he says, and like Caesar he goes ahead; but in fact Cassius has made up his mind to die. “Time is come round [it is his birthday], / And where I did begin, there shall I end” (V.iii.23-24), and his suicide, brought on by a premature conviction of defeat, is attributed by Messala to melancholy. Never before in the play has Cassius been melancholic; but he is changed utterly, and is no longer the thing he was or thought he was. Only in death is he “crown'd” by the body of Titinius (V.iii.97); only when dead Cassius is linked with the “sun of Rome” (V.iii.60-63) does he approach the godlike Caesar who compared himself to the northern star, the one fixed star of the firmament. But this sun is blood red and setting, unlike the golden sun, the emblem of crescent and fertile royalty that is conspicuously missing from Julius Caesar.

In a more general and political sense, Antony who was a “limb of Caesar” takes over Caesar's part.8 He contributes significantly to the series of parallel actions in the play. Antony continues the pattern of exchanging places: “But were I Brutus, / And Brutus Antony, there were an Antony / Would ruffle up your spirits …” (III.ii.228-30), he tells the people. As the conspirators flattered Caesar, so Antony will flatter the conspirators. After the assassination Antony's servant, at his master's direction, lavishes praise on Brutus and explicitly compares him to Caesar:

Brutus is noble, wise, valiant, and honest;
Caesar was mighty, bold, royal, and loving:
Say I love Brutus, and I honour him;
Say I fear'd Caesar, honour'd him, and lov'd him.
If Brutus will vouchsafe that Antony
May safely come to him, and be resolv'd
How Caesar hath deserv'd to lie in death,
Mark Antony shall not love Caesar dead
So well as Brutus living; but will follow
The fortunes and affairs of noble Brutus
Thorough the hazards of this untrod state,
With all true faith. So says my master Antony.


Antony will re-enact the honorable bond between the conspirators when he formally shakes the hand of each, as Brutus had (“Give me your hands all over, one by one,” II.i.112). Shortly, however, as Cassius whetted Brutus against Caesar, Antony will whet the people against these honorable men. Then Antony will hold sway in Rome—but only for a moment. The tides of power are so foreshortened in this play that before long Octavius will be ascendant, Antony beginning to ebb. Octavius asserts his will against Antony's (V.i.20), taking both the title and the tone of Caesar who had said, “The cause is in my will: I will not come” (II.ii.71).

Caesar, Brutus, Cassius in his way, Antony, and Octavius: each man in his time plays the same part, and so the “necessary form” of things shapes itself by repetition and parallels. It seems to me that any character study of Julius Caesar will be unsatisfactory if it fails to take account of Shakespeare's cross-purposes in the play. The issue cannot be one of character, that Brutus is nobler than Caesar, or that Antony is shrewder than Brutus; nor can it be the triumph of Caesarism or of liberalism. Character and ideologies give way to history. Men are brilliantly differentiated, but drawn into the mechanism of history they lose their streaks, repeating each other's ways, becoming more and more alike. Character hardens like glass or metal, so that men can mirror each other with their shiny surfaces, and like good Romans steel themselves against the knocks of fate—they are not brittle or pliant, though they may be bent. At this stage, to borrow a formula, “Role predominates over character,”9 and the concept of role-playing is surely at the center of Shakespeare's tragedy.


The triumph of history as mechanism in Julius Caesar is the extent to which role dominates character. Role is, in the broadest sense, any action that is prescribed or formalized: it may be formalized merely by being repeated, or it may be an established social function. In a more technical sense, role, or a mask or persona fitting the requirements of one's environment, is a normal development of the human personality; but the extreme dominance of role effects the “dissociation of personality,” which Jung defined once as “a neurosis having the character of an inner wastage with increasing exhaustion.”10 The concept of “inner wastage,” it seems to me, precisely fits these Romans. Inwardly they are used up, some external force drives them. They play a role up to the hilt, but at the expense of character; thus there is nothing spontaneous about them, even in a great effort they seem to be merely going through the motions. With them forms are everything, although the world their forms defined is rapidly falling apart. As Rome disintegrates, they cling to the images or illusion of what they are supposed to be for Rome's sake.11

This, impressionistically, is the atmosphere of Rome: inner wastage in a dying world, life sucked out of the hollow shell, so that the mechanism, all that is external and inhuman, sweeps the stage like the army of Fortinbras. This kind of world we encounter in the histories and the great tragedies, and I want to examine more closely Shakespeare's anatomies of England and Rome to see how this impression is contrived. Especially in Julius Caesar, where events are telescoped, poetry assumes much of the burden; the condition of society is rendered by a complex poetic substructure radiating from a key word, “ceremony.” “Ceremony,” allied with “honor” and “courtesy,” is one of the chief virtues of the courtly world; but the word had already acquired a subordinate, disparaging sense of “merely formal or external” in Shakespeare's time. This ambivalence arises in The Merchant of Venice when Portia and Nerissa stand on the ceremony of the rings they gave to Bassanio and Gratiano. In the context of the play the ring is another external contract, a law or commandment that must be seasoned by mercy or love; in these terms Antonio urged generosity to the doctor of law who saved him from Shylock's bond:

My Lord Bassanio, let him have the ring.
Let his deservings, and my love withal,
Be valued 'gainst your wife's commandement.

(MV, IV.i.449-51)

Later, when Portia disparages Bassanio's honor for having parted with a “thing held as a ceremony” (V.i.206), it is in fun, the play of one sex on the other, because, of course, Portia is the doctor and has the ring, and because she knows very well the difference between a token and the substance of a vow. This, however, is a lesson the English have not altogether learned in the histories. Portia played with the ring, but Richard II takes seriously the myths of the crown. The deposition marks the failure of a man and a world that believed in the efficacy of ceremony. Bolingbroke, who scorned the “bare imagination,” is more realistic and successful in a limited way. For him, as he explains in a lecture to Prince Hal, the ceremonies of office do hold real power but only insofar as they are properly manipulated. Comparing himself to Richard, he says,

Had I so lavish of my presence been,
So common-hackney'd in the eyes of men,
So stale and cheap to vulgar company,
Opinion, that did help me to the crown,
Had still kept loyal to possession,
And left me in reputeless banishment,
A fellow of no mark nor likelihood.
.....Thus did I keep my person fresh and new,
My presence, like a robe pontifical,
Ne'er seen but wonder'd at, and so my state,
Seldom but sumptuous, show'd like a feast,
And wan by rareness such solemnity.

(1H4, III.ii.39-59)

And it is by a rather crude manipulation of ceremony that the King's party maintains power, when Prince John pledges “restored love and amity” to the insurgents in Gaultree Forest and then, after they have dismissed their armies, treacherously arrests them for treason. There is superb irony in Bolingbroke's response to this victory, “And wherefore should these good news make me sick? (2H4, IV.iv.102); for neither the king nor his land is healed. Ceremony, as the illusion of power for Richard, as the means to power for Bolingbroke, fails to unite, indeed it only isolates the ruler from the ruled. Thus Falstaff's conclusion that “Honor is a mere scutcheon” (1H4, V.i.140) points ahead to the soliloquy of Henry V before Agincourt:

And what art thou, thou idol ceremony?
What kind of god are thou, that suffer'st more
Of mortal griefs than do thy worshippers?
What are thy rents? What are thy comings-in?
O ceremony, show me but thy worth!
.....                                                                                          No, thou proud dream,
That play'st so subtly with a king's repose;
I am a king that find thee; and I know
'Tis not the balm, the sceptre and the ball,
The sword, the mace, the crown imperial,
The intertissued robe of gold and pearl,
The farced title running 'fore the king,
The throne he sits on, nor the tide of pomp
That beats upon the high shore of this world,
No, not all these, thrice-gorgeous ceremony,
Not all these, laid in bed majestical,
Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave …

(H5, IV.i.246-47)

As Henry does here, Richard himself once testified to the bare humanity of a king (R2, III.ii.171-77); but Richard saw this truth momentarily and too late. Henry V has lived it as Prince Hal: “Hal would know that the men who fought at Agincourt were men who liked small beer; and this sort of understanding, essential to his kingship, has come to him through his wanderings in the streets.”12 Unlike his predecessors, Henry V is able to revitalize the community he rules with the appealing rhetoric of Agincourt—

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile
This day shall gentle his condition.

(H5, IV.iii.60-63)

And he brings it to a festive climax, in the tradition of Shakespeare's comedies, by enlarging himself and the realm with his marriage to Katharine of France. Thus the completing work of the tetralogy clarifies the condition of England and cures its ills, at least for a moment. And this is accomplished by Hal's education and his re-evaluation of the concept of ceremony.


“Ceremony”—word and concept—works as pervasively in Rome as in England. Brents Stirling has brilliantly described the central action of the play in terms of ceremony and counterceremony: Brutus' inward “insurrection” shows up when he rejects the idle ceremony of an oath among the conspirators, but then tries to cloak the assassination in robes of ritual sacrifice; Antony mocks this formality with the obsequious entrance of his servant and his own repetition of the conspirators' acts, shaking their hands, re-enacting the blows each dealt to Caesar.13 It is not, however, just the central act in Julius Caesar that is dressed in sanctified forms; the play is remarkable for the way in which all personal relationships are embellished with professions and rites of love, and with the same rhetoric of brotherhood that resounded in Henry V. G. Wilson Knight summarizes this motif:

No play of Shakespeare concentrates more on ‘emotion’, ‘heart’, ‘love’. All the persons are ‘lovers’, with a soft eroticism not quite ‘passion’, but powerful, itself fiery. They all call each other ‘noble’. … So the action first shows us love, friendship, imperial sway. This surface is rudely gashed by the daggers of revolt, torn open, and the naked flames exposed which feed the mechanisms of social order, life, and love. The wound heals, Antony's love for Caesar avenges his death, peace is restored. And love and friendship bring the only final peace to the souls of both Brutus and Cassius.14

So marvellously perceptive, so wrong in judgment, is my response to this passage. For all the vivid life-suggestion, there is little vitality and love in Rome, with or without Caesar. It is as if all the imagery of love were conjurer's art, trying to coax life back into the dying city. Caesar may be a lover of Rome, but no more so than Brutus, for whom Caesar is a serpent and Rome's potential ravisher. Calpurnia does not shake off her sterile curse. Brutus cannot shatter a harmony that does not exist, and Antony, who “lets slip the dogs of war,” does nothing in his own right to restore peace. That is the point that Knight misses: all the life-suggestion, all the pageantry and ceremony, is only suggestion; it does not work.

That Rome is undergoing a crisis of disunity is evident at the beginning of the play in the first words of Flavius—“Hence! home, you idle creatures, get you home: Is this a holiday?” (I.i.1-2). The tribune disdains and bullies the very people he is supposed to represent (we can imagine modern street-corner counterparts for this scene). He is frightened, of course, that the people have discarded their “rule,” for to Flavius and Marullus the return of Caesar is a sign of Misrule, a holiday Rome can ill afford. Marullus, too, chides the tradesmen:

You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!
O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome,
Knew you not Pompey?


This is, as it were, Marullus' funeral oration for Pompey. Marullus, like Antony, wants the people to shed tears for their fallen leader; but he is not so clever as Antony, who uses the same verbal counters (wood, stones, men, III.ii.144) to compliment rather than insult the populace. Marullus reminds us that blood has already been shed, that Caesar himself has set a “plague” (I.i.54) of ambition, murder, and revenge into motion. Flavius urges the cobbler to be a “mender of bad soles” by assembling the people in a rite of expiation; meanwhile, he and Marullus will remove the festive “ceremonies” that were to welcome Caesar. There are already bad consciences, “guiltiness” and “fearfulness” in the city. Moreover, the public state is mirrored in its persons. Almost all the characters of the play are in some way physically sick or distressed:15 Caesar is presumably deaf in one ear and epileptic; Calpurnia is barren, Cassius has a “lean and hungry look,” and Brutus is sick with inner strife, the microcosmic “insurrection” that corresponds to the divisive illness of the body politic. Finally, the great storm symbolizes not just the “death of princes,” as Calpurnia fears; nor is it, as Cassius interprets, the “monstrous state” Caesar's coronation would bring, or a sign of nature's collusion with the conspirators (I.iii.71-78, 127-30). The storm is not so partisan: with its attending portents it is, like the storms of Lear and Macbeth, an expression of cosmic disorder, “civil strife in heaven,” that is not restricted to particular men and places but spread out through the entire world.


Thus Rome is raw as the morning air on the ideas of March, “rheumy and unpurged.” Is it warmed and purified by endless vows of love among the Romans? In fact, for all the outward signs, there are no redeeming or sustaining personal relationships in Julius Caesar, nothing like the love of Cordelia for her father or Horatio's loyalty to Hamlet. Romans profess love, but they do not act from it; their love is a cold constancy at best, treachery at worst; it is gilt that has worn and cracked, a ceremony become a masquerade.16 And like the sacrificial rites of the assassination, this ceremony offers the illusion of propriety and decency to desperate men. These two varieties of ritual, one public and the other more personal, are appropriately connected when Brutus uses the key word to comment on the offices of love:

                                                                                Ever note, Lucilius,
When love begins to sicken and decay
It useth an enforced ceremony.


Brutus refers to Cassius, but he speaks for all of Rome: the sickness of the whole state is the untuning of its persons, and love that is cold or dying insists upon display.

Significantly what Cassius asked of Brutus at the beginning of the play was not love, but the “show of love” (I.ii.33), a phrase repeated by Brutus. True Romans are supposed to despise mere show, the flattery and fawning of an unworthy lover. Cassius would not be trustworthy, he tells Brutus, if he were one

To stale with ordinary oaths my love
To every new protester; if you know
That I do fawn on men and hug them hard,
And after scandal them …
… then hold me dangerous.


Caesar scorns the kind of entreaty that “melteth fools”—

                                                                                                    I mean sweet words,
Low-crooked curtsies, and base spaniel fawning.
Thy brother by decree is banished:
If thou dost bend and pray and fawn for him,
I spurn thee like a cur out of my way.


Yet precisely this show of love costumes the conspiracy: “Hide it in smiles and affability,” Brutus tells himself (II. i. 82), and he directs his cohorts,

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 Caesar, who would not be flattered, is seduced by Decius' protestations of “dear, dear love,” and suffers the rites of symposium (II.ii.126) and the betrayal kiss (III.i.52)17 before he is struck down by his “good friends.” The truth is, as Decius said, “But when I tell him he hates flatterers, / He says he does, being then most flattered” (II.i.207-208). Whatever he says, Caesar believes in ceremony—not only omens and the rites of the Lupercalia (“Leave no ceremony out,” he instructed Antony, I.ii.11), but in all the courtesies of office. He has played a role for the people, as “do players in the theatre” (I.ii.257), and he expects to be idolized for his part. Those who would deny him, like Marullus and Flavius, “for pulling scarfs / Off Caesar's images, are put to silence” (I.ii.282).

Amid these treacherous ceremonies of love, the love of Brutus for Portia and his friendship with Cassius are often cited as examples of noble Roman devotion.18 Portia's appeal to know her husband's secret is moving, yet the very asking suggests a possible remoteness in their relationship. Subsequent events bear out this possibility: it is not so much that Brutus does not confide in Portia as that he is unaffected by what she does, even when ultimately she takes her own life. Portia is held at the same distance as the men who surround Brutus; she is saluted with the same epithets, “honourable” and “noble,” and she is treated so much like a lesser version of masculine virtue that she aspires to it—constancy is the virtue of Caesar and Brutus, and so “constancy” is Portia's aim. Constancy for her is not love or faithfulness but firmness, clenching her teeth and tightening her lips, something one proves by inflicting a “voluntary wound … in the thigh” (II.i.300) or by swallowing fire. If by her suicide Portia finally unsexes herself she wins from Brutus only a stoic dismissal. The second revelation of her death, particularly, hints of Macbeth's numb resignation under similar circumstances:

Why, farewell, Portia. We must die, Messala.
With meditating that she must die once,
I have the patience to endure it now.


Here Brutus demonstrates his philosophy, both its strength and its weakness: if it enables him to endure all terrors, it also stops up his vital warmth.19

The friendship between Brutus and Cassius climaxes in the quarrel and reconciliation before Philippi. In this crucial scene both characters are clarified and at the same time diminished. Brutus stands on principle, Cassius on personal loyalty: Brutus would punish Lucius for taking bribes even though Cassius has personally recommended him; Brutus will have nothing to do with “indirections” or “vile means,” while Cassius expects a “friendly eye” to overlook mere indiscretions. Brutus is irritable and arrogant throughout the quarrel, Cassius is petulant and whimpering like a chastened wife that Brutus does not love him—

… O Brutus! …
Have not you love enough to bear with me,
When that rash humour which my mother gave me
Makes me forgetful?

(IV.iii.117, 118-20)

The emphasis here, as in the early moments of the conspiracy, is on the qualitative difference between the two men, a difference that a common goal can only momentarily efface. Brutus and Cassius muffled their disagreements in the conspiracy, and now in the face of danger they will do so again. Their rift is smoothed over by “enforced ceremony”: after all, when they leave the tent, regardless of the outcome of their quarrel, their armies must “perceive nothing but love from us” (IV.ii.44); they drink wine together (IV.iii.157-61)—Caesar, too, drank wine with his friends, and they were false to him; they part with an elaborate ritual, repeating the same formula that conveys, even while it settles, their predominant fears. They are united, but it takes only Antony's cutting tongue to bare their division once more:

… O you flatterers!
Flatterers? Now, Brutus, thank yourself.
This tongue had not offended so to-day,
If Cassius might have rul'd.


The alliance of Brutus and Cassius is a yoke of necessity, and their reconciliation is the last role the historical mechanism requires of them.

Finally, the love of Antony—not, of course, the love he feigns to the conspirators who would reciprocate by taking him as a brother, with “all kind love, good thoughts, and reverence” (III.i.176)—not this calculated gesture, but his contrastingly simple statement about Caesar: “He was my friend, faithful and just to me” (III.ii.87). Antony's is an “ingrafted love,” Cassius says, pursuing Brutus' image of Antony as a “limb of Caesar” (II.i.165, 184). Such an organic metaphor is rare and suggests a fusion or involvement that all the other relationships in the play lack. Yet this love is not life-giving; its fruits are cruelty and havoc, dramatically underlined in the brief street scene that follows Antony's oration (III.iii.26-35). Long-cracked, Rome has at last collapsed. Here chaos is come, and although all share the responsibility for it Antony is most directly its agent. Antony prophesied a monarch's revenge for Caesar, and he “let slip the dogs of war,” intentionally giving them the leash. When the crowd rushes off to burn the traitors' houses, Antony reminds us that he set the fire in their hearts and little cares who is consumed in the flames: “Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot, / Take thou what course thou wilt” (III.ii.262-63). Antony acts the Lord of Misrule; he is “a masker and a reveller” (V.i.62), fat enough to allay Caesar's distrust of lean men, and in his funeral speech a mocker of honorable men, like Falstaff. But with Antony there is no free play, his games are skillfully manipulated and maliciously conceived. He has fooled the conspirators and turned citizens into beasts with his magic oratory, and he will shortly swindle them of Caesar's legacy (IV.i.9) and contemptuously make an “ass” (IV.i.19) of his fellow triumvir Lepidus. If Antony loved Caesar, he loves no other. Brutus may be so rigidly devoted to honor that he can but coldly love men; Antony's devotion to Caesar's spirit is so intense that it sweeps away judgment and compassion. Both therefore fail to restore life and both lose the substance of love.


Pattern of imagery enlarge this sense of devitalized personal relationships in Julius Caesar. To put the negative case first, the most important political images in the histories are never applied to Rome: the Roman state is never a garden, not even one overgrown with weeds to signify its diseased condition; and Roman leaders are not compared to blossoming plants or to the sun itself.20 Nothing remains of this iterative motif that climaxes in the celebrated prologue to the fourth act of Henry V:

A largess universal like the sun
His liberal eye doth give to every one,
Thawing cold fear, that mean and gentle all,
Behold, as may unworthiness define,
A little touch of Harry in the night.

(H5, IV. Pro. 43-47)

Indeed, to thaw or be thawed is rather a debilitating quality, if one is to heed Caesar or Brutus. Contrast the sunlike largess of the King with Caesar's constant northern star, or the “little touch of Harry” with the grotesque and hypocritical account that Decius gives of Caesar nourishing Rome with saintly teats spouting blood. Without the imagery of living and life-giving things, the whole social life of Rome suffers the “sterile curse.” Perhaps Shakespeare meant to say that republican government is inevitably barren and that sun-imagery is simply inappropriate to its form. Yet I doubt it; his England had trouble enough with her kings until one was able to show how the sun-imagery could really work at the level of practical politics. If Shakespeare intended a political or social point, I would think it more likely that he attack not the republicanism of Rome, but something more pervasive and personal—perhaps what we can label the “stoicism” of its people—something in the roots of a society that inhibits the kind of organic community expressed in the garden and sun images.

The dominant strain of images in Julius Caesar compares men to animals. The Roman people are “the common herd” to Casca, and to Cassius “sheep” and “hinds” without whom Caesar would be no “wolf” or “lion.” Antony, before he woos them as men, calls the plebians “brutish beasts” for not mourning Caesar. This patrician contempt is not heaped solely on the masses. Animal imagery shows the contempt the great Romans feel for each other and the viciousness of their internecine struggle. Most commonly they call each other dogs, and never in complimentary terms: they are the “base spaniel fawning” that Caesar despises (III.i.43) or the cruel hounds that bring their successive victims to bay (III.i.204, IV.i.48-49, V.i.41). For Brutus Caesar is an “adder,” Cassius “waspish” and like a “horse hot at hand”; Lepidus is Antony's “horse” and an “ass”; Cicero is a “ferret” with “fiery eyes.” An assortment of verbs like Brutus' “chew” (I.ii.169) or Cassius' “Brutus, bait me not” (following Brutus' “I had rather be a dog, and bay the moon, / Than such a Roman,” IV.iii.27-28), and much plucking, gorging, and sucking add to this impression of subhuman ferocity. None of these comparisons suggests anything of vitality or noble passion; they are all unattractive, predatory animals eyeing each other with mutual suspicion.21 Even animals like the lion, horse, or falcon, which are sometimes used to enhance men, serve more ignoble purposes here. The lion in the Capitol is merely “surly” (I.iii.21), a sign that Caesar is no mightier than other men, according to Cassius (I.iii.76). Caesar as a lion (I.iii.106, II.ii.44-47) is not noble, merely plundering and “terrible.” And when he is compared to a falcon by the tribunes (I.i.72), it is to dishonor him by plucking feathers from his wing.

Again it is instructive to think back to the history plays. Henry V can tell his men at Agincourt to “imitate the action of the tiger” without dehumanizing them because he so precisely limits the scope of their brutishness (H5, III.i.1-9). The lion is valiant, everyone knows, even when Falstaff, who is not, claims the comparison for himself (1H4, II.iv.266-71). Something of what Rome lacks is in the outlandish Hotspur, who, according to Hal's burlesque, makes his wife wait upon his horse (1H4, II.iv.104, cf. II.iii.71ff.). Hotspur's sense of honor may be less admirable than Brutus', yet it brings forth a warmer and more impressive tribute from Kate Percy than Portia's suicide. (2H4, II.iii.). And for glorious vitality there is nothing in Julius Caesar to compare with the king's forces described by Vernon (in 1H4, IV.i.97-103). The animals that inhabit Rome make it, beneath ceremonies of love and friendship, an unsavory, predatory world much closer to the “forest of beasts” cataloged by the protagonist in Timon of Athens (IV.iii.325-50) than to the chronologically nearer world of the English histories.

The quality of Roman life is implied even more forcefully by the great variety of references to metals. For the qualities of metal, to use the play's recurring pun, describe the mettle of an honorable Roman. At his best he is stronger than any metal; Cassius defines this strength as he boasts to Casca,

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.


Yet, like the philosophy of Brutus, this virtue is in fact Rome's weakness: characteristically for the play, Cassius' strength of spirit is measured by its power not to give life but to extinguish it. And though Cassius disdains “worldly bars,” throughout the play lead, steel, iron, brass, flint, stone, and wood block out the lines of Roman constancy. This constancy, when it grows impervious to all about one, bars the harmonious fusion of parts that makes a well proportioned garden and a working state. A score of constant Romans does not add up to a healthy Rome.

Metal imagery works very much like the animals in Julius Caesar. The list above comprises all baser metals. The common people are “basest mettle” (I.i.61), and perhaps their “guiltiness” is gilt (this pun is explicit in H5, II. Pro. 26) or the superficiality that allows them to be so easily swayed one way and then the other. The noble Romans are more polished, mirrors and glass; but despite his own claims Caesar can lose his “lustre” (I.ii.123), and Cassius discovers that even “honourable mettle may be wrought” (I.ii.306). When great men bend to base deeds, they depend upon the “richest alchemy” of Brutus to show, by transforming murder into sacrifice, that theirs is not the guilt of the plebes. Cassius “whets” (II.i.61) Brutus against Caesar, but “fashion” as he may—the verb has an equivocal sense, drawing from Henry's admonition to Canterbury not to “fashion, wrest, or bow your reading” (H5, I.ii.14)—Brutus cannot make the hard, steel points of argument and sword into rich gold. Roman fire does not transform, it tempers these metals, so that the “leaden points” (III.i.173) that Brutus offers Antony become in the end of the play sharpened, hardened steel. All the metallic images of the concluding scenes are destructive rather than vital: the flint of Brutus sparks but is quickly cold (IV.iii.110); “murd'rous” sleep with its “leaden mace” is a symbol of death and arrest (IV.iii.265); and the end is wrought by “piercing steel and darts envenomed” (V.iii.76).

Compared to the base metals, references to gold and silver are decidedly sparse, and even those lack their usual honorific force and are often debased. They are not richly symbolic, but have merely a hard, literal value. The “silver hairs” of Cicero, for example, will only “buy men's voices to commend our deeds” (II.i.144), like an ordinary bribe. The gold that Brutus and Cassius argue about (IV.iii.11ff.) is money and nothing more. To Brutus it is a “base bribe” and “trash,” and it weighs upon him unrewardingly, as gold merely encumbers the poor ass in Antony's figure for Lepidus (IV.i.21). Both Brutus and Cassius would “coin” their hearts—Brutus would pay his legions (IV.iii.72-77), and Cassius, offering his heart “richer than gold” to Brutus, would thereby redeem his reputation (IV.iii.98-104). But for Cassius this is a persistent and hollow gesture (cf. I.iii.49, 97) to prove by his own death the triumph of his spirit.22 Again, I must conclude, the gold of Julius Caesar is not the gold of Harry that dazzles the eyes of France (H5, I.ii.279), nor the “hoop of gold” that would bind the realm in brotherhood (2H4, IV.iv.43), nor the later, equally symbolic “golden blood” of the meek King Duncan; it is rather the gold of Pluto or Plutus (JC, IV.iii.101), the god of wealth, who is said to be only a steward to Timon of Athens (Tim. I.i.275)—it is hard cash that cannot buy true friendship.

There, finally, is the fabric of Rome, contrived with subtlety and in considerable detail by the organization of motifs and images in the play. Dramatically, of course, it is an impression, but for analysis I have abstracted three distinct elements: first, the signs, on all levels, of division and crisis; second, the ceremonies, both the elaborate public rituals and the more personal ceremonies of love and friendship; third, the continuous imagery involving animals and metals. Together they project a special world, Shakespeare's peculiar creation, in which traditional forms have lost the power to humanize men and yet remain, for those who give themselves to these illusions of power, to work ironic and destructive effects. Thus the ceremonies of Rome are but illusions of love and justice and honor, and Romans who refuse to see the limitations of their social code are swept up in the ironies of history.

If the anatomy of Rome explains why history triumphs over men in Julius Caesar, it incidentally suggests that this triumph is not inevitable or inescapable. For the “world” of the play—its conditions or situation—is one men have created. The details and especially the imagery show that this world is fashioned from personal relationships and individual standards of conduct; and the action describes how men increasingly narrow their conduct into roles that support the necessary form of history. The mechanism of history draws its power from the situation men have made, and in its remorseless way it turns on the makers. A critic who challenges Jan Kott makes the point that to gain perspective on the conflict where the grotesque always defeats the tragic, we must be sensitive to the “conditions of society within which the conflict goes on.” For the point, he quotes Kott himself:

… This notion of an absurd mechanism is the last metaphysical concept still surviving in the contemporary grotesque. But this mechanism does not stand in a relation of transcendence to man, still less so to the human species. It is an ambush which man has prepared for himself, and into which he has fallen.23

History is this sort of ambush in Julius Caesar.


  1. Citations for Julius Caesar and the histories are from the individual Arden Shakespeare editions (London, 1955); for the other plays, from Hardin Craig, ed., The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Glenview, Illinois, 1961).

  2. See Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, trans. Boleslaw Taborski (Garden City, 1966), especially pp. 6-11, 14. According to Kott, Shakespeare made history a blind mechanism rather than a rational or divine order (pp. 47-48) and so conceived, history transformed the tragic world into the grotesque.

  3. Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (New York, 1967), pp. 106-13, gives a detailed analysis of the parallel in these scenes.

  4. Brutus and Bolingbroke are dissimilar characters, but Caesar has been compared with Richard II for believing in his own invulnerability. See Douglas Peterson, “‘Wisdom Consumed in Confidence’: An Examination of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar,” SQ, [Shakespeare Quarterly] XVI (1965), 19-28.

  5. T. S. Dorsch, ed., Julius Caesar (Cambridge, Mass., 1955), p. xli, and Rabkin, p. 112, make the same point about this passage.

  6. This prominent theme is traced through the major tragedies by John Holloway, The Story of the Night (London, 1961). See his summary, pp. 146-47. I do not see the tragic realization or knowledge that Ernest Schanzer, The Problem Plays of Shakespeare (New York, 1963), pp. 46ff., 63, 70, gives to Brutus, for (as I shall argue below) chaos is not what Brutus brings into existence but what was implicit in Rome at the beginning; all the major characters, wittingly or not, help it along. Brutus, I think, shares some of the ambiguity Schanzer ascribes to Caesar (pp. 12-32).

  7. L. C. Knights, “Shakespeare and Political Wisdom: A Note on the Personalism of Julius Caesar and Coriolanus,SR, [Sewanee Review] LXI (1953), 46.

  8. I follow Maurice Charney, Shakespeare's Roman Plays: The Function of Imagery in the Drama (Cambridge, Mass., 1961), pp. 74-77.

  9. Holloway, p. 26.

  10. Carl Jung, Psychological Types, trans. H. Godwin Baynes (London, 1923), p. 484. See the discussion of “Soul” and related concepts, pp. 588-96.

  11. Cf. L. C. Knights, “Shakespeare's Politics: With Some Reflections on the Nature of Tradition,” Proceedings of the British Academy, XLIII (1957); Julius Caesar contrasts “person and persona” (p. 118). It shares with the greater nonpolitical plays “a preoccupation with the ways in which men give themselves to illusion” (p. 119). “Shakespeare's political plays are creative explorations of conceptions such as power, authority, honour, order, and freedom, which only too easily become objects of ‘idolatry’” (p. 127). These comments and “The Public World,” Chapter II of Knights', Some Shakespearean Themes (Stanford, 1960) provide fruitful insight and direction.

  12. M. M. Reese, The Cease of Majesty: A Study of Shakespeare's History Plays (New York, 1961), pp. 304-305.

  13. Brents Stirling, Unity in Shakespearian Tragedy (New York, 1956), pp. 40-54.

  14. G. Wilson Knight, The Imperial Theme (London, 1951), pp. 61-62. Knight insists on vitality and yet finds “mechanisms” the appropriate metaphor for “social order life, and love”—presumably because they are social rather than personal. Contrast the suggestion that Shakespeare's concept of society is more in the “organic” tradition of Dante, Aquinas, Hooker, and Coleridge, in L. C. Knights, “Shakespeare's Politics,” pp. 123-27.

  15. Knight, Imperial Theme, pp. 40-42.

  16. See L. C. Knights, “Shakespeare and Political Wisdom,” p. 47. Schanzer (p. 32), comparing Pirandello, says we never know whether there is a real Caesar behind the mask.

  17. These rituals and their association with Judas are noted by Schanzer, p. 30.

  18. E.g., Knight, quoted above, or V. G. Kiernan, “Human Relationships in Shakespeare,” in Shakespeare in a Changing World, ed. Arnold Kettle (New York, 1964), pp. 52, 55, 61.

  19. See L. C. Knights, “Shakespeare and Political Wisdom,” p. 48, and William Bowden, “The Mind of Brutus,” SQ, XVII (1966), 57-67, for similar view of the relationship between Brutus and Portia. Northrop Frye, Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy (Toronto, 1967), p. 26, calls Brutus “one of the few characters in Shakespeare capable of an impersonal loyalty,” but “the one man for whom personal loyalties are inappropriate.” This distinction comes across forcefully in the play.

  20. Caroline Spurgeon traced both these patterns from Henry VI through the histories, Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us (Cambridge, 1965), pp. 216-24, 233-38.

  21. Here I think Knight, Imperial Theme, p. 33, clearly misjudges the effect of the imagery. For example, he sees in the horses of Antony and Brutus images of “fiery vitality and spirit.” In fact, Antony uses the image to make Lepidus appear as a mindless beast of burden, and Brutus implies that Cassius is all show without substance. Knight is closer to the truth when he cites the horse as a symbol of disorder (II.ii.23). The only ennobling images, it seems to me, are Antony's comparison of Caesar to a hart (III.i.204) and possibly Brutus making himself a lamb (IV.iii.109).

  22. Again contrast G. W. Knight's interpretation of these images, Imperial Theme, p. 35.

  23. Alick West, in Shakespeare in a Changing World, pp. 255-56. The quotation, slightly changed, is in Kott's chapter on King Lear, p. 133.

L. C. Knights (essay date 1979)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6233

SOURCE: Knights, L. C. “Personality and Politics in Julius Caesar.” In ‘Hamlet’ and Other Shakespearean Essays, pp. 82-101. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

[In the following essay, Knights analyzes how Shakespeare contrasted public and private life in Julius Caesar. ]

Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar in 1599, and the play was first performed in the new theatre, the Globe, which Shakespeare's company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, had recently had built on the Bankside. Shakespeare, of course, got the material for his play from Plutarch's Lives of Caesar and Brutus. But, just as in gathering material for the English historical plays from Holinshed, he selected only what he needed as an artist dealing with the universal stuff of human nature, so here his purpose is not simply to reconstruct the historical situation in Rome in the year 44 b.c. The historical material is of interest only for what Shakespeare makes of it. That he made of it a pretty exciting drama is witnessed by the fact that the play is still being performed today, still capable of holding audiences not all of whom are compelled by the exigencies of university examinations. It is exciting; it is richly human; it holds the attention. It also happens to be an important work of art—which means that through the forms of a dramatic action it focuses a particular vision of life: the sequence of events, the dialogue, the interplay of different characters, are held together by an informing ‘idea’, so that all these elements contribute not solely to an evening's entertainment but to an imaginative statement about something of permanent importance in human life. What, at that level of understanding, is Julius Caesar ‘about’? That is the question to which I want to attempt an answer.

Before tackling that question directly, there are two matters I want to touch on—one concerning the play's structure, the other its substance: they are, in fact, closely related. The action of Julius Caesar turns on a political murder, the assassination of Caesar, which takes place in Act III, scene i—right in the middle of the play. Before the murder, attention is focused on the origin and development of the conspiracy—Caesar on one side, Cassius, Brutus, and half a dozen more, on the other. After the murder, attention is focused on the struggle between the conspirators (Brutus and Cassius) and the successors of Caesar (Octavius Caesar and Antony), on the failure and disintegration of the republican cause. It is possible to see a blemish here: the climax, it can be said, comes too early, and when Caesar has disappeared from the action, Shakespeare only contrives to hold our interest by such tours de force as Antony's oration and the quarrel between Brutus and Cassius. In fact, however, the play forms a coherent and tightly woven whole. The murder of Caesar is, if you like, the axis on which the world of the play turns. Up to that event, we are shown one half of that world, a hemisphere; as soon as the daggers are plunged into Caesar's body the world of the drama turns, and fresh scenes and landscapes come into view: but it is still one world. Dropping the metaphor, we may say that the interests aroused in the first part find their natural fulfilment in the second: that there is nothing in the presented action of the last two and a half acts (and action includes psychological as well as physical action) that is not a revelation of what was implicit, but partly concealed, in the conspiracy itself. There is no question here of a broken-backed play in which flagging interest must be maintained by adventitious means. The play is as much of a unity as Macbeth; and, like Macbeth, though less powerfully, it reveals the connexion between observable events in the public world and their causes in the deeper places of personal life—matters not so easily observed except by the eye of the poet.

My second preliminary observation concerns the nature of the interest enlisted by this play. In dealing with Julius Caesar, as indeed with other of Shakespeare's plays, there is a particular temptation to be guarded against—that is, the temptation to abstract from the play certain general issues and to debate them either in the abstract or in a context which Shakespeare has not provided for them. Criticism of Julius Caesar is sometimes confused by considerations that apply either to the historical situation at Rome at the time of Caesar's assassination, or else to specifically twentieth-century political situations, and the play is debated as though Shakespeare were putting before us the question of whether dictatorship or republicanism were the more desirable form of government. He is doing nothing of the kind; and perhaps the first thing to notice is how much of possible political interest the play leaves out. There is no hint of, say, Dante's conception of the majesty, the providential necessity, of the empire which Caesar founded. On the other hand, there is nothing that can be interpreted as a feeling for the virtues of aristocratic republicanism—in the way, for example, some of the first makers of the French Revolution felt when they invoked Roman example. We are not called on to concern ourselves with whether ‘Caesarism’ is, or was, desirable or otherwise. Instead, there is a sharp focus on a single, simple, but important question—on what happens when personal judgment tries to move exclusively on a political plane, where issues are simplified and distorted. I may say, in passing, that if we want a wider context for the play, we shall find it not in a realm of political speculation foreign to it, but in those other plays of Shakespeare—they include such different plays as Troilus and Cressida and Othello—where the dramatist is posing the question of how men come to deliver themselves to illusion, of how they construct for themselves a world in which, because it is not the world of reality but a projection of their own, they inevitably come to disaster. This means, of course, that the play offers no solution—it offers no material for a solution—of the question, Empire or Republic? dictatorship or ‘liberty’? Shakespeare is studying a situation, bringing the force of his imagination to bear on it, not offering solutions, or not, at all events, political ones.

Yet—and this brings me to the substance of what I want to say—Julius Caesar does have important political implications. It takes up Shakespeare's developing preoccupation with the relation between political action and morality. ‘Politics’, I know, is an exciting word, and ‘morality’ is a dry word. But what I mean is this:—Politics are the realm where, whatever the particular interests involved, the issues are to some extent simplified and generalized, and therefore seen in abstract and schematic terms. Morality—and I mean essential living morality, not just copy-book maxims—has to do with the human, the specific and particular. Martin Buber, in his great book, I and Thou, has made us familiar with an important distinction—between the world of ‘thou’ (the world of relationship) and the world of ‘it’ (the world where things, and even people, are treated simply as objects, and manipulated accordingly). For the politician there is a constant temptation to lose sight of the ‘thou’ world, and Martin Buber's distinction may help us here.

Julius Caesar is a play about great public events, but again and again we are given glimpses of the characters in their private, personal, and domestic capacities. Caesar is concerned for his wife's barrenness, he faints when he is offered the crown, he ‘had a sickness when he was in Spain’, he listens to Calpurnia's dreams and fears. Brutus causes his wife concern about his health; we are told of his disturbed sleep; we see him forgetting his public cares and ensuring, with real tenderness, that his boy Lucius gets some needed sleep. And much more to a similar effect. Now Shakespeare at this time was nearing the height of his powers—Hamlet is only a year or two away—and it is unlikely that he put in these domestic scenes and glimpses because he didn't know what else to do. It is obvious that we are intended to be aware of some sort of a contrast between public life and private, and commentators have, in fact, noticed this. They point, for example, to the contrast between Caesar the public figure and Caesar the man:

          … for always I am Caesar.
Come on my right hand, for this ear is deaf.

When Brutus, in his ‘gown’ (the symbol of domestic privacy) speaks gently to his boy, we are told that this ‘relieves the strain’ of the tragic action. And every account of the characters includes some reference to those aspects of Caesar, Brutus, and Cassius that are revealed in their more intimate moments and hidden or disguised in public. What seems not to have been recognized is the cumulative effect of these and many other reminders of a more personal life—the important part this pervasive but unobtrusive personalism plays, or should play, in our evaluation of the public action.

That we are intended to be aware of the characters as men, of the faces behind the masks, is clear enough. We may notice in passing that on occasion the contrast is emphasized in visual terms. At the beginning of II, ii, according to the stage-direction that makes every schoolboy laugh, Caesar enters ‘in his night-gown’ (a dressing-gown, or house-coat); then, as the conspirators prevail over his wife's entreaties, ‘Give me my robe, for I will go.’ Not only are all the main figures at some time divested of their public robes—those ‘robes and furr'd gowns’ that, according to King Lear, ‘hide all’—and allowed to appear as husbands, masters of households and friends, but they all, in turn, emphasize each other's personal characteristics. ‘He was quick mettle when he went to school,’ says Brutus of Casca. A principal reason why Cassius thinks Caesar isn't fit for his exalted position is that he, Cassius, is the stronger swimmer, and that Caesar, like the rest of us, was hot and cold and thirsty when he had a fever. And although Antony, addressing the crowd, deliberately makes emotional capital out of Caesar's mantle, ‘I remember,’ he says,

The first time Caesar ever put it on;
'Twas on a summer's evening, in his tent,
That day he overcame the Nervii,

the touch of particularity, of revealed privacy, is intended for us, the audience, as well as for the Roman crowd. We notice, too, how often the word ‘love’ appears in this play. I haven't made a count, but it must be about two dozen times, which is perhaps rather surprising in a political play. Again and again the characters speak of their love—their ‘dear love’ or their ‘kind love’—for each other, just as they seem to find a special satisfaction in referring to themselves as ‘brothers’. Now the effect of all this is not only one of pathos or simple irony. The focus of our attention, I have said, is the public world: from the arena of that world, personal life—where truth between man and man resides—is glimpsed as across a gulf. The distance between these two worlds is the measure of the distortion and falsity that takes place in the attempt to make ‘politics’ self-enclosed.

The attempt—the attempt to make public action and public appearance something separate and remote from personal action—is common to both sides. Caesar constantly assumes the public mask. It seems to be a habit with him to refer to himself in the third person as ‘Caesar’; and there is his speech, so charged with dramatic irony, when, immediately before the assassination, he rejects the petition of Metellus Cimber:

I could be well mov'd if I were as you;
If I could pray to move, prayers would move me;
But I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix'd and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament …
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 that I am he,
Let me a little show it. …

What this means, in the case of Caesar, is that in the utterance and attitude of the public man we sense a dangerous tautness. In the case of Brutus, a parallel divorce between the man and the statesman results in something more subtle and more interesting. That a particular bond of affection unites Caesar and Brutus, the play leaves us in no doubt. Almost the first words that Brutus speaks of Caesar are, ‘I love him well’, and when, after the murder, he insists again and again that Caesar was his ‘best lover’, there is no need to doubt his ‘sincerity’ in the ordinary sense of the word. So, too, Cassius tells us, ‘Caesar doth bear me hard; but he loves Brutus’; and Mark Antony:

                    For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar's angel:
Judge, O you Gods! how dearly Caesar lov'd him.
This was the most unkindest cut of all. …

It is this Brutus, the close friend of Caesar, who wrenches his mind to divorce policy from friendship; and the way in which he does it demands some attention.

It is, of course, true that on matters of public policy you may have to take a firm stand against men whom on other grounds you like and respect: you can see this in the government of a university, for example, as well as in the government of a state. Is Brutus doing more than follow this principle to a necessary conclusion? Well, yes, I think he is. For the moment I want to put on one side the scene in which Cassius (in Brutus's own words later) ‘whets’ him against Caesar, and ask your attention for the long soliloquy at the opening of Act II in which Brutus reviews his own motives and intended course of action. This is what he says:

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.
The 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;
And 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. 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.

Now it is a principle of Shakespearean, indeed of Elizabethan, stage-craft, that when a character, in soliloquy or otherwise, develops a line of argument—as when Faustus, in Marlowe's play, produces a number of specious reasons for dismissing the traditional sciences—we are expected to follow the argument with some attention. Not, of course, that we follow such a speech merely as logicians. We are dealing with drama, which means that when a character expounds, say, his reasons for a course of action, what he says is intended to reveal some aspect of what he stands for and is committed to as a human being. And we are dealing with poetic drama, which means that even in an expository speech we are aware of much more than can be formulated in conceptual terms. But we do not, on this account, switch off our intelligence or such powers of logical thought as we may possess. As Virgil Whitaker says in his book, Shakespeare's Use of Learning, ‘Like Marlowe, Shakespeare expected his audience to be able to detect a fallacy in reasoning.’ With this in mind, let us turn back to Brutus's soliloquy. It is a curious argument, in which qualities known in direct contact between man and man (‘I know no personal cause to spurn at him’) are dismissed as irrelevant to public considerations; and it is precisely this that gives the air of tortuous unreality to Brutus's self-persuadings—full as these are of subjunctives and conditional verbs, which run full tilt against the reality that Brutus himself acknowledges:

The 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. …(1)


                              since the quarrel
Will bear no colour for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus. …

On this Coleridge shrewdly commented that what Brutus is really saying is that he ‘would have no objection to a king, or to Caesar as a monarch in Rome, would Caesar but be as good a monarch as he now seems disposed to be’. In Brutus's mind, however, what is is now completely lost in a cloud of mere possibilities:

                              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.

Caesar is already, as Brutus describes him later, ‘the foremost man of all the world’; he is not still ‘in the shell’, neither is he ‘young ambition’. But it is by sophistries such as these that Brutus launches himself on what Clarendon was to call ‘that fathomless abyss of Reason of State’.

Shakespeare, of course, was a very great psychologist, and what the play also shows—and I want to dwell on this for a moment before returning to the scene of Brutus's crucial choice and its consequences—is that personal feelings, which Brutus tries to exclude from his deliberations on ‘the general good’, are, in fact, active in public life. But they are active in the wrong way. Unacknowledged, they influence simply by distorting the issues. The famous quarrel scene between Brutus and Cassius certainly has this ironic significance. It is, of course, Cassius, in whom the ‘taboo on tenderness’ is strongest—who is scornful of ‘our mothers' spirits’ (I, iii, 83) and despises Caesar for behaving ‘as a sick girl’ (I, ii, 127)—who here displays the most pronounced ‘feminine’ traits—‘that rash humour which my mother gave me’ (IV, iii, 119). That the whole thing contrives to be touching should not obscure the fact that the causes of the quarrel—they had mainly to do with money—did demand a more impersonal consideration. Now the relevance of this is that it is above all in Cassius that the springs of political action are revealed as only too personal. What nags at him is simply envy of Caesar: ‘for my single self’, he says to Brutus:

I had as lief not be as live to be
In awe of such a thing as I myself. …
                              … And this man
Is now become a god, and Cassius is
A wretched creature and must bend his body
If Caesar carelessly but nod on him.

Caesar, he says to Casca, is:

A man no mightier than thyself or me
In personal action, yet prodigious grown.

And it is this man who acts as tempter to the ‘idealizing’ Brutus, skilfully enlisting what Brutus feels is due to his own ‘honour’. I do not wish here to pursue the temptation scene in any detail; but that it is temptation the play leaves us in no doubt. At the end of the long, skilfully conducted second scene of the first act, Cassius is left alone and reveals his thoughts about the man whom we can only call, at this stage, his dupe:

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?

Editors disagree about the meaning of these lines. Some would have it that Cassius means that the noble disposition of Brutus may be, as it were, wrenched from truth by his friendship with Caesar, the dictator: the man of republican virtue should ‘keep ever’ with those like-minded to himself. It may be so; but I find it hard not to read the lines as a firm ‘placing’ comment on Cassius's own relations with Brutus: ‘For who so firm that cannot be seduc'd’—by specious reasoning? The most we can say for Cassius is that his appeals to Roman ‘honour’, to the ‘nobility’ of his associates, are not simply laid on for the benefit of Brutus, but are part of his own self-deception. The banished feelings have come in by the back door, thinly disguised by much talk of ‘honour’.

It is of course true that the play does not present Caesar as an ideal ruler, and I myself think that Shakespeare would have agreed with Blake's gnomic verse:

The strongest poison ever known
Came from Caesar's laurel crown.

But when Brutus, the man of honour and high moral principles, accepts Cassius's arguments and enters the world of the conspirators, he enters a topsyturvy world—a world where ‘impersonal’ Reasons of State take the place of direct personal knowledge; and at the same time true reason, which is a function of the whole man, has given way to obscure personal emotion. Shakespeare leaves us in no doubt of the confusion of values and priorities in that world. We have noticed how often love and friendship are invoked in this play, indicating what men really want and need. What we also have to notice is how often the forms of friendship are exploited for political ends. When Caesar is reluctant to go to the Senate House, Decius inveigles him with protestations of ‘dear dear love’, and the conspirators drink wine with their victim before leading him to the Capitol; Brutus kisses Caesar immediately before the killing; Antony talks much of love and shakes hands all round as a way of deceiving the conspirators. It is this, therefore, that explains our sense of something monstrous in the action, symbolized by the storms and prodigies, and made fully explicit by Brutus in his garden soliloquy—for it is time to return to that—when, deserting the actual, he has given himself to a phantasmagoria of abstractions.

At this point, Brutus's self-communings are interrupted by his boy, Lucius, who brings him a letter—one of many such, purporting to come from the citizens of Rome asking for redress at his hands, but, as we know, manufactured by Cassius. ‘O Rome!’ says Brutus, not knowing that the letters do not represent ‘Rome’ at all,

                    O Rome! I make thee promise;
If the redress will follow, thou receiv'st
Thy full petition at the hand of Brutus!

Then, as Lucius goes off once more to see who is knocking at the gate in the darkness:

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.

The indications here—the insomnia, the fact that Brutus is, as he has said earlier, ‘with himself at war’—are, if we remember Macbeth, clear enough. And the signs of a mind at war with itself, attempting to batten down its own best insights, which yet refuse to disappear, continue into Brutus's musings as the muffled conspirators are announced:

                    O conspiracy!
Sham'st thou to show thy dangerous brow by night,
When evils are most free? O! then by day
Where wilt thou find a cavern dark enough
To mask thy monstrous visage? Seek none, conspiracy;
Hide it in smiles and affability:
For if thou path, thy native semblance on,
Not Erebus itself were dim enough
To hide thee from prevention.

Conspiracy is not only ‘dangerous’, it is ‘monstrous’, associated with night and darkness, with evils and Erebus. As J. I. M. Stewart has said, Brutus's words are those of a ‘man over the threshold of whose awareness a terrible doubt perpetually threatens to lap’.

Brutus, of course, is not a deliberate villain as Macbeth is; but like Macbeth he is presented as losing his way in a nightmare world—‘like a phantasma’, something both horrible and unreal, ‘or a hideous dream’. In other words, Brutus's wrong choice not only leads to wrong action, it delivers him to a world of unreality, for the ‘phantasma’, far from ending with the acting of the ‘dreadful thing’, extends beyond it. As the play proceeds, we are made aware not only of a complete lack of correspondence between the professed intentions of the conspirators and the result of their act, but of a marked element of unreality in the world which they inhabit. Let us take two examples, for Shakespeare provides them, and he presumably intended that we should take notice of what he provides.

Shakespeare often puts before the audience two different aspects of the same thing, or suggests two different angles on it—sometimes, but not always, in juxtaposed scenes. He makes no obvious comment, but the different scenes or passages play off against each other, with an effect of implicit comment, for the audience itself is thus enlisted in the business of evaluation and judgment. I think of such things as Falstaff's description of his ragged regiment, following hard on the heels of Hotspur's heroics about warfare, in the First Part of Henry IV; or the way in which, in Antony and Cleopatra the summit meeting on Pompey's galley is followed immediately by a glimpse of the army in the field, with some irony from a soldier about the High Command. In Julius Caesar, the murder of Caesar is not only presented on the stage, it is described both in prospect and in retrospect. You all remember the way in which Brutus envisages the action to the conspirators in the scene with which we have been dealing. Pleading that Antony may be spared, he says:

Let us 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. …

Is that the way political assassinations are carried out? Before the battle of Philippi, Brutus taunts Antony, ‘you very wisely threat before you sting’, to which Antony retorts:

Villains! you did not so when your vile daggers
Hack'd one another in the sides of Caesar;
You show'd your teeth like apes, and fawn'd like hounds,
And bow'd like bondmen, kissing Caesar's feet;
Whilst damned Casca, like a cur, behind,
Struck Caesar on the neck.

Antony, of course, speaks as a partisan of Caesar, but the energy of the verse (‘your vile daggers Hack'd one another in the sides of Caesar’) leaves us in no doubt that Antony's account is nearer to actuality than Brutus's fantasy of a ritualistic sacrifice.

My second example is of even greater importance, for it concerns the whole sequence of events in the second half of the play—consequences, I want to insist once more, that are shown as flowing directly from what Brutus and the rest commit themselves to in the first part. As soon as Julius Caesar falls, Cinna cries out:

Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!
Run hence, proclaim, cry it about the streets.

And Cassius:

Some to the common pulpits, and cry out
‘Liberty, freedom, and enfranchisement!’

Then, as something of the mounting bewilderment outside the Capitol is conveyed to us (‘Men, wives, and children stare, cry out and run as it were doomsday’), Brutus enforces the ritualistic action of smearing themselves with Caesar's blood:

                                        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!’

The irony of that hardly needs comment, but the play does, in fact, comment on it with some pungency. I suspect that what I am going to say will be obvious, so I will be brief and do little more than remind you of three successive scenes. When, after the murder, Brutus goes to the Forum to render ‘public reasons’ for Caesar's death, it is his failure in the sense of reality, of what people really are, that gives us the sombre comedy of his oration: so far as addressing real people is concerned he might as well have kept quiet. ‘Had you rather Caesar were living, and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men?’ he asks, and much more to the same effect. To which the reply is successively:

—Live, Brutus! live! live!
—Bring him with triumph home unto his house.
—Give him a statue with his ancestors.
—Let him be Caesar.

After this, the response of the crowd to Antony's more consummate demonstration of the arts of persuasion comes as no surprise: it is:

—Slay!—Let not a traitor live!

Mischief, in the words of Antony's cynical comment when he has worked his will with the crowd, is indeed afoot; and the very next scene—the last of the third Act—gives us a representative example of what is only too likely to happen in times of violent political disturbance. It shows us the death of an unoffending poet at the hands of a brutal mob:

—Your name, sir, truly.
—Truly, my name is Cinna.
—Tear him to pieces; he's a conspirator.
—I am Cinna the poet, I am Cinna the poet.
—Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his bad verses.

The frenzied violence of this, with its repeated, ‘Tear him, tear him!’ is followed at once by a scene of violence in a different key. If the mob is beyond the reach of reason, the Triumvirs, Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus, are only too coldly calculating in their assessment of political exigencies:

These many then shall die; their names are prick'd.
Your brother too must die; consent you, Lepidus?
I do consent—
                                        Prick him down. Antony.
Upon condition Publius shall not live,
Who is your sister's son, Mark Antony.
He shall not live; look, with a spot I damn him.
But, Lepidus, go you to Caesar's house;
Fetch the will hither, and we shall determine
How to cut off some charge in legacies.

And, when Lepidus goes off on his errand, Antony and Octavius discuss the matter of getting rid of him, before they turn their attention to combating the armies now levied by Brutus and Cassius. These, then, are the more or less explicit comments on Brutus's excited proclamation:

And, waving our red weapons o'er our heads,
Let's all cry, ‘Peace, freedom, and liberty!’

That peace and liberty could be bought with ‘red weapons’ was the illusion: the reality is mob violence, proscription, and civil war.

In following the story through to its end, Shakespeare was, of course, bound to follow his historical material; but, as an artist, he made this serve his own purposes. Many of you must have noticed how often Shakespeare, in his greater plays, makes the outward action into a mirror or symbol of events and qualities in the mind or soul: Macbeth is perhaps the most obvious instance of this. The last act of Julius Caesar certainly follows this pattern. Even before the battle of Philippi Brutus and Cassius appear like men under a doom; and, although defeat comes to each in different ways, it comes to both as though they were expecting it, and prompts reflections, in themselves or in their followers, that clearly apply not merely to the immediate events but to the action as a whole. Cassius asks Pindarus to report to him what is happening in another part of the field (‘My sight was ever thick,’ he says), and, on a mistaken report that his messenger is taken by the enemy, kills himself. On which the comment of Messala is:

O hateful error, melancholy's child!
Why dost thou show to the apt thoughts of men
The things that are not? O error! soon conceiv'd,
Thou never com'st unto a happy birth,
But kill'st the mother that engender'd thee.

Harold Goddard, in his interesting chapter on Julius Caesar, says of this, ‘The whole plot against Caesar had been such an error.’2 We may add further that the play also enforces the close connexion between error and a supposed perception of ‘things that are not’. As Titinius says to the dead Cassius a moment later, ‘Alas! thou hast misconstrued everything.’ As for Brutus, defeated and brought to bay with his ‘poor remains of friends’, he senses that this is no accident of defeat but the working out of the destiny to which he committed himself long before:

Night hangs upon mine eyes; my bones would rest,
That have but labour'd to attain this hour.

And then, as he runs on his own sword:

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

These last ten words—if I may quote Goddard once more—‘are the Last Judgment of Brutus on a conspiracy the morality of which other men, strangely, have long debated’.3 Earlier in the play, you may remember, Cicero had commented on certain portents and men's interpretation of them:

But men may construe things after their fashion,
Clean from the purpose of the things themselves.

That seems to me an anticipatory summing-up of Brutus's whole political career, as the play presents it.

Let me repeat once more, Brutus was not, in any of the ordinary senses of the word, a villain; he was simply an upright man who made a tragic mistake. The nature of that mistake the play, I think, sufficiently demonstrates. Brutus was a man who thought that an abstract ‘common good’ could be achieved without due regard to the complexities of the actual; a man who tried to divorce his political thinking and his political action from what he knew, and what he was, as a full human person. Many of us remember the idealizing sympathy felt by liberal young men in the 1930s for the Communist cause. There had, it was felt, been excesses, but as against the slow cruelty of a ruthless competitive society, its degradation of human values, even violence might seem like surgery. ‘Today,’ said W. H. Auden, in his poem, ‘Spain’ (1937):

Today the inevitable increase in the chance of death;
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.

That, of course, was written before the Russian treason trials of 1938 and the subsequent purges, and Auden subsequently re-wrote the lines; but they serve to illustrate the matter in hand. ‘General good,’ said Blake, ‘is the cry of the scoundrel and the hypocrite; he who would do good to another must do it in minute particulars.’ There is some exaggeration in the first half of that aphorism, but it contains a profound truth, sufficiently demonstrated in many eminent figures in history. Shakespeare demonstrates it in the figure of a man who was neither a scoundrel nor a hypocrite:

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!’

Shakespeare offers little comfort to those who like to consider historical conflicts in terms of a simple black and white, or who imagine that there are simple solutions for political dilemmas. In the contrast between the ‘gentle’ Brutus and the man who, for abstract reasons (‘a general honest thought’), murdered his friend and let loose civil war, Shakespeare gives us food for thought that, firmly anchored in a particular action, has a special relevance for us today, as I suspect it will have at all times.


  1. It may not be unnecessary to comment that ‘remorse’, here, means pity, and ‘affections’, passions.

  2. Harold Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare, Vol. I, [University of Chicago Press, 1960], p. 329.

  3. Ibid.

Bruce Weber (review date 21 August 2000)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1110

SOURCE: Weber, Bruce. “The Politics of the Toga Era, Big, Bold, and Often Bloody.” The New York Times (21 August 2000): E1.

[In the following excerpted review of Barry Edelstein's stage adaptation of Julius Caesar for the New York Shakespeare Festival, Weber finds the production as a whole to be rather unmoving. Additionally, Weber observes that individual performances—with the exception of Jeffrey Wright's commanding interpretation of Marc Antony—focused on obvious overt personality traits rather than internal emotional and psychological struggles.]

With a busy percussionist pounding out portents, thunderclaps and sounds of war; a massive set of defaced, slightly skewed cement walls and an enormous disembodied hand to suggest a city shaken by cataclysm; a cast that plays the entire evening in a state of high dudgeon; and the whole production watched over by a mammoth, gold-painted bust of David McCallum (who plays the title role) dangling from a crane, the New York Shakespeare Festival's Julius Caesar has the garish bravado of a political convention.

O.K., that's a coyly chosen comparison, but the play is, after all, a timely choice for the festival this summer. And though the fire-and-brimstone production that opened last night at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park is apt enough for Shakespeare's virulent treatise on the combustible chemistry of power and eloquence, this “Caesar” leaves you feeling shouted at and implored but not terribly shaken.

Directed by Barry Edelstein, it employs the briskly orchestrated, applause-moment-to-applause-moment strategy that makes political theater moving only to those already on the bandwagon. The murder of Caesar is handled with apt horror; it takes a long time for him to bleed and fall, and when he does he collapses on top of Brutus. But when Cinna the Poet is killed by the Marc Antony-roused mob merely for having the same name as a conspirator against Caesar, Mr. Edelstein strings him up by his ankles and hangs him from the very spot that Caesar's golden bust had occupied.

This is the moment that brings the lights down for intermission, and it is meant to provide a thrumming emotional zing. But it's heavy-handed and too much; the audience is already gasping from the bloodletting. And when the unnecessary, ominous-sounding musical cue is laid on, it has a similar effect to the convention-hall band striking up “Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.”

Mr. Edelstein strives for a timeless, borderless embrace, sometimes evocatively. His first-century Rome gives Brutus (Jamey Sheridan), still waffling over his decision to kill Caesar, the use of a telescope, a clever echo of Cassius's cagy nudge: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves.”

The soothsayer (Ching Valdes-Aran), who begins the show portentously with a witchy dance and a shriek—“Caaaeeeeesaaar!”—is dressed and made up in vaguely Oriental fashion. The plebeians wear long blue robes and knitted skullcaps suggestive of Muslim garb (the costumes are by Angela Wendt) and at one point perform a celebratory dance, tapping out fierce African rhythms with sticks. The aspirants to power are clothed more formally, with military or affluent suggestion but without ethnic influence. The point is clear, if not exactly revelatory: the hold by a concentrated privileged few over a marginalized, variegated many is universal.

The most disappointing aspect of this “Caesar” is its underscoring of the obvious at the expense of the subtle. This is perhaps Shakespeare's most morally ambiguous play; it ends with one of his most ironic lines, the callow Octavius, Caesar's heir, declaring the end of the civil war that leaves Rome in tatters a “happy day.” It's all the result of Caesar's declining prowess as a leader and Brutus's foolish susceptibility to the influence of Cassius (Dennis Boutsikaris), who is a coward, and the opportunism of power-hungry Marc Antony (Jeffrey Wright), dreadful foibles that seriously compromise their otherwise heroic stature. The men understand this, and their inner battles are what give the play its human—as opposed to political—profundity.

For the most part, however, the performances here follow the tone of the production as a whole, emphasizing each man's overt qualities rather than his struggles to cope with self-doubt. As a result the psychological battles are overly transparent. Mr. McCallum's Caesar seems overcome by his physical infirmity, with almost no remnant of his potency; as Cassius, Mr. Boutsikaris initially has the well-greased verbal facility of the confident class sneak, and he does have a lean and hungry look, but he's always jittery—he does a lot of finger-pointing—and when the time comes, he is an awfully cowardly coward, the struggle for dignity washed away in sheer panic.

As Brutus, Mr. Sheridan has the tense, macho mien of a Tom Landry-like football coach, someone who relishes the burden of setting a martyr's example for underlings. He seems to relish being put upon, even at home. (Portia, his wife, is played by Colette Kilroy as embittered by her husband's preoccupied frame of mind, and she uses the wounding of her thigh as a shrewish manipulation of his attention.) But Mr. Sheridan is a stiff performer, passing from reaction to reaction with a visible yank. His funeral speech feels practiced—think Al Gore—inadvertently masking the complications in Brutus's heart, making Antony's countervailing oration a finger snap.

Not that Mr. Wright delivers it that way. He milks it, looming above the mob like a demagogue and then stalking among the crowd, flourishing Caesar's will and unmercifully teasing the assemblage with its contents, voice rising to a crazed bellow.

In films and onstage Mr. Wright has been proving himself a performer of the can't-take-your-eyes-off-him ilk, and he is far and away the most commanding presence here. He has the grace and carriage of a casual athlete; he's the kind of actor who doesn't need to stay busy onstage. Even standing still, with hips and shoulders cocked in natural arrogance, he has a star's bearing, and he lends Antony a full measure of his charisma.

This is particularly apparent in his quieter moments. Scolding Octavius, dismissing Lepidus as no more serviceable a soldier than his horse, acknowledging an order from Caesar, greeting the conspirators with the grave affection that masks a poisonous vitriol, he conveys a casual potency.

And that may be why his performance, in the end, feels overplayed. In Mr. Wright's hands, Antony's joy in power becomes so overwhelming that his conscience is never in evidence. It is Marc Antony, after all, who delivers the impromptu eulogy for Brutus, “the noblest Roman of them all,” and he has to mean it. It feels cold and expeditious here, a performance in itself, the kind of falsely modest apportioning of credit that is worthy only of a candidate. …

Mary Hamer (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4422

SOURCE: Hamer, Mary. “Portia and Calpurnia.” In William Shakespeare: Julius Caesar, pp. 30-41. Plymouth, U.K.: Northcote House Publishers Ltd., 1998.

[In the following essay, Hamer studies the characters of Portia and Calpurnia in Julius Caesar, and examines the ways in which the education of women and the Roman conception of marriage contribute to their fate.]

When Portia enters and starts to speak, it is the first time, as we realize, that the voice of a woman has been heard. In public Calpurnia expressed only acquiescence and stood silent. Or perhaps we haven't even thought that was odd, for to some people the life we are shown in Shakespeare's Rome is perfectly natural and of interest only because it is such a good imitation of normal behaviour as we meet it in real life, rather than Shakespeare's play being a way of confronting us with questions about what we now think is normal and about what we take for granted.

To a woman's ear, the ear of a woman who has been married more than once, as I have, and as indeed the historical Portia herself had been, the words of Brutus strike a familiar note. The wife takes her husband by surprise; ‘What are you doing here?’ he asks, rather put out as the broken movement of his first line shows: ‘Portia! What mean you? Wherefore rise you now?’ (2.1.233). As a form of greeting this leaves something to be desired, the more so perhaps if we hear in it a muted and domestic echo of the tribunes' cry that opened the play: ‘Hence! home, you idle creatures, get you home!’ (1.1.1.). Even at home there is a Roman official alert to maintain control of the space. Though Brutus goes on more smoothly, a wife might well hear reproof in his voice, under the even movement of the iambics, a reproof offered under the guise of telling Portia what is good for her. ‘It is not for your health thus to commit / Your weak condition to the raw cold morning.’ (2.1.235-6), warns Brutus, reminding his wife to think of herself as weak. If instructing Portia offers a way for Brutus to stabilize himself, after the interview with the conspirators who have only just left the stage, for Portia to answer him with ‘Nor for yours neither’ breaks through that temporary calm. ‘Nor for yours neither’, she tells him, reminding him that what is bad for her is also bad for him, that she is not the only one who might fall sick. That a man's body is not that different from a woman's, after all. If nearly everyone in this play is sick in some way as Wilson Knight suggested—Caesar suffers from epilepsy and deafness, Brutus claims to be out of sorts, Ligarius is too ill to attend the conspirators' meeting, while Calpurnia has not been able to conceive and Portia mutilates herself—perhaps we are now being shown the common source of the diseases of Julius Caesar, a source that is found in the relations between women and men.1

The conspirators wanted Brutus to act but Portia, his wife, wants him to speak to her. ‘Speak to me speak, why do you never speak’, begs the woman in T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land. Does Portia sound like that in the ears of Brutus? But such terms as neurasthenic or neurotic, which are often applied to the anxious women in Eliot, don't seem to fit the behaviour of Portia here. As she speaks, she reveals herself, in Carol Gilligan's phrase as ‘a naturalist of the human world’ in her close observation of her husband. Maybe this is not what a Roman wife was supposed to do. It was Virginia Woolf, wasn't it, who suggested that for hundreds of years women had had the magic power of reflecting men at twice their natural size?2 When Portia mirrors Brutus in this play, she does not show him what he wants to see about himself or reach for the language of admiration used to him by other men.

                                                  yesternight at supper
You suddenly arose and walked about,
Musing and sighing, with your arms across,
And when I asked you what the matter was,
You stared upon me with ungentle looks.
I urged you further, then you scratched your head
And too impatiently stamped with your foot.
Yet I insisted, yet you answered not,
But with an angry wafture of your hand
Gave sign for me to leave you.


It does not please Brutus to be observed in this state, reduced to silence, a silence that makes him strangely akin to the speechless bodies that Rome would like to make of the workmen and of the women, capable only of making a wordless gesture, a sign. For all her training as a Roman wife, Portia cannot avoid registering his behaviour in fine detail and noting it as strange. Case notes are what Portia offers, a scrupulous record of the recent interaction between them, which has convinced her that he is in distress.

When the resemblance was noted between the symptoms of shell-shock in army officers during the First World War and the hysteria that Freud had studied in intelligent highly educated women, W. H. R. Rivers offered an explanation.3 Rivers suggested that when the officers found themselves trapped and made helpless by the conditions of trench warfare, that put them into a position more often occupied by women, who in everyday life found themselves the targets of external attacks against which they had no defence. Men of other ranks manifested the same symptoms too. What if the problem for Brutus was his position as a man, a man confined by the language that Rome with its particular values and traditions made available to him? There might be more to men and to women too than their culture chose to recognize. Portia's description of the gesticulating, frowning body of her husband might well put us in mind today of the distorted postures adopted by hysterics that were recorded in the photographs of Charcot (FM 149-54). Aphasia is the term used for the loss of speech but it sounds very clinical. Showing Brutus utterly speechless might have suggested that, like Ophelia in Hamlet, he was abnormally disturbed. But that is not at all Shakespeare's point here. Brutus is nothing if not a normal and decent man. Instead Shakespeare chooses to ask us as audience to believe the words of Portia, when she tells us that Brutus is moved by feelings that he cannot put into speech.

We are to believe Portia, though we may come to be troubled by the excess of her own emotion as the scene proceeds, an excess that produces not speechlessness but a flood of language, too many words. ‘I am not well in health, and that is all.’ (2.1.257), mutters Brutus, almost sulkily. Isn't physical illness what hysterics turn to when they cannot reach language? Brutus might sound composed, to some ears, when he claims that he is simply not well but the audience knows for itself and Shakespeare is exploiting this, to drive a wedge between Brutus and ourselves, that this composure is a false front, a mask. Strange that some of us should feel as audience that there is something dignified about his lie; we may be closer to ancient Rome still than we think—or than Shakespeare was. The masks of ancestors were kept in the homes of certain Roman aristocrats and worn on the streets on special days: is it part of the duty of a Roman, even of a modern one, to keep the truth about himself from his wife? If Portia begins to sound insistent and even hysterical herself as she tries to make sense of him, if she kneels and starts to beg to be allowed to know what is happening in her own house, can we listening to her put a name to her desperation?

Deprivation or denial of sensory input can drive people mad. If hysteria develops when women or men are under threat and unable to defend themselves, there might be a threat to Portia that we need to recognize. It might lie in her husband, Brutus, in his refusal to acknowledge his own disturbance, a fact that she cannot avoid knowing because she's so close to him.

You have some sick offence within your mind,
Which by the right and virtue of my place
I ought to know of.


Portia begs. That right and virtuous place, Roman marriage, whose rules both Brutus and Portia are earnestly trying to observe, seems to be almost a form of torture for both women and men and to come between them at every turn. Portia has begun to frame questions about marriage for herself; is it because she is a wife that her husband must keep himself secret from her, she wonders?

Within the bond of marriage, tell me, Brutus,
Is it excepted I should know no secrets
That appertain to you?


Her husband never has to address this question, because it is immediately translated or transposed by Portia, who is a good daughter of Rome, into a complaint.

Like Freud's patients, and like the women Virginia Woolf wrote of, Portia was one of the daughters of educated men, ‘excellently well seen in philosophy’ as Plutarch writes, but this may not have been much help to her (JC 166). Her own father, Cato, who is said to have spent the last night before he killed himself reading Plato, is also described in the same entry as being impervious to reason (OCCL). Portia too is trapped within the structures of Roman thought. A good woman, as Portia has been told, is a wife: a bad one a harlot. Stop treating me like a bad woman, she says, instead of staying with the all-important question: can it really be true that good women are meant to be punished by being kept at a distance by their husbands?

Though Portia can move Brutus to feeling—usually by physical gestures like kneeling rather than by words—she cannot move him to a language that escapes from the shackles of Rome. He can only repeat that she is true and honourable, a Roman wife and not a Roman harlot. The division between good women and bad ones seems the only way of thinking about women that is of interest in Rome. If Brutus tells Portia that she is dear to him, as he does, he phrases it in terms of comparing her to his blood. Perhaps Portia also thinks that only deep in the body, where the response to experience and to the outside world can remain locked and unspoken within living tissue, can what is true and what is valuable be found. Portia cut into her own body—‘Giving myself a voluntary wound / Here, in the thigh.’ (2.1.300-301)—in order to convince Brutus of her own worth, a worth that would be identical with silence, with keeping silent about her husband. A Roman wife must keep quiet about what she knows.

Portia cuts herself: when women do that today it is taken as a sign that they are gravely at risk, as the work of psychiatrist Estela Welldon has shown.4 You would not think any husband or lover could bear to see his wife's body mutilated in this way. But Brutus exclaims in admiration at the wound: ‘O ye gods, / Render me worthy of this noble wife!’ (2.1.302-3). What gods would prompt a man to admire a wounded body? It is earthly powers that profit from the battles where wounds are received. But in a military culture like Rome's, that is one that makes waging war the principle by which it grows, the human instinct to recoil from injury has to be managed and transformed. In the course of her good Roman education, Portia has learned the same lessons that are designed to form Roman men. When it comes to bodies, there has been an attempt to educate both Brutus and Portia out of tenderness and respect. But perhaps in a Roman marriage, as in a Roman Catholic one today, where control of fertility is officially forbidden, husband and wife are not intended to be lovers. There is sadness in those words that Portia utters soon after she begins to address her husband; ‘Y'have ungently, Brutus, / Stole from my bed’ (2.1.237-8), she complains. Is it tenderness and sexual pleasure that Portia is missing?

There was a market for images of Portia making demonstration of the wound in her thigh, in Christian Europe after the Renaissance. … They seem to have been intended to titillate, as the image of a sexualized wound. Maybe this image of Portia offers a surrogate, suggesting that the vagina is a wound, one that might be made or probed by a blade. Bodies are so exciting to each other: it seems that pleasure in active cruelty must develop once tenderness for the body has been discredited and disallowed. Freud argued that men could not bear to look directly at representations of the female genital because it reminded them that their own member could be cut off, but the image of Portia and the example of Freud himself might seem to expand that theory.5 What if the imaginary, the unconscious of Christian Europe, were haunted by the image of the vagina as a wound, a wound that might have given pleasure to someone in making it?

Portia is at risk both physically and psychologically: we are left in no doubt of this by the demonstration of her anxiety at 2.4 when she is waiting to discover whether the attack on Caesar has been carried out. Her breathing, the process by which she maintains the exchange of oxygen in her body, has become uneven as the jerky line-movement reveals:

I prithee, boy, run to the Senate House.
Stay not to answer me but get thee gone.
Why dost thou stay?


Of course the scene in one sense is playing with the audience, who are being teased and made to wait for the climactic moment of the murder. The appetite in us for violence is being worked up. But there is something for us to learn about Portia, something we need to understand. We might be tempted to compare her with Lady Macbeth, another wife in a warrior culture who decides that she must stop being a woman. Lady Macbeth, who tells us that she has borne children, wants to suppress her milk, to undo what is maternal in her response and in her body. It is a move, as we know, that would be appreciated in Rome. But Portia, the educated woman, the woman who has had the intellectual training of a Roman man, is required to suppress her own voice.

O constancy, be strong upon my side,
Set a huge mountain 'tween my heart and tongue!
I have a man's mind, but a woman's might.
How hard it is for women to keep counsel!—


Portia finds herself put under unexpected pressure once she is more closely involved in public affairs: her anxiety must be kept secret. Being true to Brutus and true to her education for Portia means learning to block her own response and to silence herself. Intuitively though, she knows the enormity of what she has undertaken and names it in the imagery of her speech. Agreeing to suppress her own voice means introducing a stony mass into the living organism of her body, a mass that will crush out her life. We have seen her put up one fight against the demand to suppress her own perceptions and her fears, when she succeeded in persuading Brutus to confide in her. Portia wanted only to share more closely in her husband's life. Now we realize that the demand for self-censorship in women was one that Portia has absorbed into her own being. Portia's training in dissociation began when her education divided her from herself, teaching her to believe that she had ‘a man's mind but a woman's might’. She is proud of being able to think like a Roman man, and even to speak as if she were one, against her own sex: ‘How hard it is for women to keep counsel’ she moralizes. This means that when actively suppressing her voice makes her feel ill—‘I must go in.’ (2.4.39), ‘O, I grow faint—.’ (2.4.43)—instead of pausing to question what she is doing to herself as a woman, Portia falls back on the adages she has been taught. She has only just admitted that it will take the weight of a ‘huge mountain’ to prevent the impulses of her heart from issuing in speech when Portia laments ‘Ay me, how weak a thing / The heart of woman is!’ (2.4.39-40). As Shakespeare's audience, we can hear Portia contradict herself and enter into confusion: to us Portia's problem appears to be that her impulses, her feelings of anxiety on behalf of her husband at this critical moment are so strong. Portia may think of herself as failing but we who observe her recognize a triumph, the triumph of her Roman education in Portia. This education has taught her to despise what she feels as a woman and has cut her off from the promptings of her own voice. Nothing in that education prepared her to recognize when she was putting herself in danger.

Two acts later at 4.3 Shakespeare shows us what is the outcome when a woman educated in Rome is put under the double stress of sharing the tensions of her husband's life. The news of Portia's suicide comes to us at the close of a quarrel between her husband and his friend and on the eve of the battle between men that will take up the whole last act of the play. Portia's death cannot be separated from the struggles for power that take place between men: it is a disturbing fact that Brutus and Cassius, who had been quarrelling between themselves, make their truce over Portia's dead body, or its representation. Didn't Luce Irigaray argue that the figure of a woman is necessary as the foundation for the pacts of men?6 Plutarch knew of two different explanations for the death of Portia: he argued in favour of the story that she had killed herself because she was ill and no one would help her. But Shakespeare chooses the other version, the one rejected by Plutarch: ‘she, determining to kill herself (her parents and friends carefully looking to keep her from it), took hot burning coals and cast them into her mouth, and kept her mouth so close that she choked herself (JC 183). This story takes us into a hideous world, one of mutilation and of fury at psychological abandonment: yet in its image of a mouth closed at all costs in the midst of friends, it picks up resonance. It recalls the silencing and self-destruction that we have seen Portia impose on herself in the name of loyalty and love.

We meet Calpurnia as a woman with a voice and a will of her own for the first time at 2.2. She is only too aware of the dangers by which the life of her husband, Caesar, is threatened in the world outside. Portia knew that something was troubling her husband, whatever he said to the contrary. Both women bring into the world of the play knowledge that is unwelcome, knowledge that has been acquired by accurate observation on their part. But where Portia succeeded in persuading Brutus to confide his plans to her, Calpurnia will not be able to get Caesar to make use of what she knows. Calpurnia has picked up what they intend to do to her husband. Even before she comes in, Caesar is repeating the words that she cried out beside him during the night in her dream: ‘Help ho, they murder Caesar!’ (2.2.3). Like Portia, Caesar can't help registering something of the disturbance in his partner, though it is made easier for him in that Calpurnia has words and images too, as we find later, for what she fears. Does Calpurnia communicate so vividly because she has never had her mind trained to think like a man, because she lacks Portia's familiarity with philosophy? Caesar doesn't ask Calpurnia what she thinks her dream means, although it is such a specific warning, unlike the generalized threat they both perceived in the thunder and lightning. Caesar never treats Calpurnia's dream as a form of perception or as an opinion that she is offering about the world, maybe because the dream is produced not out of a book but out of her own woman's body, like her voice.

Freud suggested that in nineteenth-century Europe dreams carried knowledge and desires that it was not permissible to admit to in everyday life. It would not be particularly surprising, in view of what we have already seen on the occasion of the Lupercalia, if Calpurnia had some desire of her own to see Caesar dead. I've never heard that giving a wife instructions brings out the best in her. When Caesar turned his back on the Soothsayer in public it was to dismiss him as a dreamer. Unofficial knowledge, the sort that is not sponsored by the state but carried on the individual voice, is easy to dismiss in Rome. Didn't the wife of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judaea, who warned him not to join in the plot against Jesus, find this out for herself? She sent messages to her husband as he sat in court saying that she had ‘suffered many things in a dream because of this just man’. Before the scene is out we may feel that Caesar himself is just a man, merely human, and that like Jesus he too is a victim of collusion among men who are jockeying for power.

With its emphasis on shutting down language, the Roman state wants to outlaw the ability to dream. Today doctors tell us that is not a healthy sign—our bodies need to go every night into that deep sleep where dreaming occurs. Whether we choose to remember our dreams or not is a different question. In private, as we see here, Caesar can't resist a dream, as Cassius told us in the previous scene but it marks a change in him:

For he is superstitious grown of late,
Quite from the main opinion he held once
Of fantasy, of dreams, and ceremonies.


At the end of his life, according to Jasper Griffin, Caesar felt a sense of futility (HWC 18). Turning to dreams and omens might well be read as a search for a meaning that has been lost, a turn that is made when experience or even life itself has lost its meaning. No one would say that Rome had ever shown much respect for human life, whatever honours it chose to heap on exceptional men. Is the Caesar that Shakespeare invites us to observe exposed in his nightgown here, one who has been left with nothing to believe in, not even much sense of reality, by his unchallenged supremacy in Rome?

Instead of asking Calpurnia about what she dreamed, Caesar sends to the priests. What does he tell them to do but cut up a body (2.2.5), just as Portia cut into herself in search of the truth? Do all Romans suspect that the body holds a secret for them that they have missed? Many of them seem to feel that the body is meant to speak but they don't trust the mouth somehow, it doesn't do the job that it should: ‘Speak hands for me!’ says Casca (3.1.76). According to Antony, Caesar's wounds ‘like dumb mouths do ope their ruby lips’ (3.1.260; see also 3.2.215). But Calpurnia, having escaped their education, does not share their secret doubts about language: she is determined to take her dream seriously and to keep her husband at home, a resolve that makes her pit her will against his. ‘What mean you, Caesar, think you to walk forth? / You shall not stir out of your house today.’ (2.2.8-9). That's a strong statement to make to the man who had taken to himself the title of Dictator for life. How strangely she is answered though, ‘Caesar shall forth’, her husband says, speaking of himself in the third person, as if he were a monument or an institution rather than a man (2.2.10). He is given to wishful thinking too, for he seems to believe that he can frighten away any threat. But Caesar listens to the priests and that may have confused him, unlike Calpurnia, who has never had any time for their doings—‘never stood on ceremonies’, as she puts it herself (2.2.13). It is because Caesar only pays attention to the voices of other men that he will defy Calpurnia's common sense and venture outside.

The priests like to designate frightening experiences as signs: that's one way of playing upon our realistic sense that as human beings we can be hurt. That instinct might at last be attempting to surface in Caesar. But we may also be frightened by our own intimations of power. If Calpurnia takes the storm for a warning sign now, is it because the storm resonates with her own suppressed impulses of violence, a suppressed violence against Caesar that she has also picked up in the other men who surround him and come to her house? As Plutarch said, it only creates trouble for everyone making one man so special.


  1. Quoted Geoffrey Miles, Shakespeare and the Constant Romans (Oxford, 1996), 134. n. 25.

  2. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (London, 1929).

  3. See ‘Male Hysteria: W. H. R. Rivers and the Lessons of Shell-Shock’, in Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture 1830-1980 (London, 1985).

  4. Estela V. Welldon, Mother, Madonna, Whore: The Idealization and Denigration of Motherhood (London, 1988).

  5. S. Freud, ‘The Infantile Genital Organisation’, Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 19, p. 144.

  6. Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which is not One (Itaca, 1985).


Quotations from Julius Caesar are taken from the New Cambridge Shakespeare edition, edited by Marvin Spevack (Cambridge, 1988). All other Shakespeare quotations are taken from the Riverside Shakespeare, edited by G. Blakemore Evans (Boston, 1974).

FM: The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture 1830-1980, by Elaine Showalter (London, 1987)

HWC: ‘Here Was a Caesar!’, by Jasper Griffin, New York Review of Books (1988), vol. 35, no. 8, p. 14(4)

JC: Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, edited by Marvin Spevack (Cambridge, 1988)

OCCL: Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, edited by Paul Harvey (Oxford, 1980)

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4132

SOURCE: Charney, Maurice. Introduction to Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare, edited by Maurice Charney, pp. ix-xvii. New York: Applause, 1996.

[In the following essay, Charney offers an overview of Julius Caesar. The critic examines the way in which Shakespeare compressed historical events, the relation of the play to Shakespeare's English history plays, and the play's treatment of the conflict between public and private life, particularly the way this conflict affects Brutus.]

The historical events on which Julius Caesar is based cover a period of about three years, from October, 45 b.c., to October, 42 b.c. But Shakespeare compressed and transposed what he found in Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (1579), so that one has the impression that everything takes place in a few days. The play begins with Caesar's triumph, celebrated in October, 45 b.c., for his defeat of Pompey's sons in Spain; this event is combined with the Feast of Lupercal on February 15, 44 b.c. (Act I, scene i). The next sequence (I.ii-III.iii) represents a continuous piece of action, starting with the winning of Brutus to the conspiracy, continuing with the murder of Caesar, and culminating in Antony's funeral oration (with a grotesque aftermath in the death of Cinna the Poet). All of this takes place on the ides of March (March 15, 44 b.c.) and on the day just before it. The complicated happenings of Acts IV and V are telescoped into a few significant scenes that follow one another swiftly. The proscription of the enemies of the Triumvirate (IV.i) occurred in November, 43 b.c., Brutus met Cassius at Sardis early in 42 b.c. and quarreled with him there (IV.ii and iii), and the two battles of Philippi fought in October of the same year are made into a single battle (V.i-v). Shakespeare endows the disparate historical events with a feeling of dramatic and temporal inevitability, and he also convinces us of his fidelity to an authentic vision of ancient Rome.

Julius Caesar can be dated with some assurance in 1599, that critical moment between Henry V and Hamlet when Shakespeare was at the very mid-point of his career. After the heroic and epic celebration of England in Henry V, Shakespeare turned to the best-known crisis of Roman history, and he produced in Julius Caesar a play closer to tragedy than any of the English history plays that preceded it. There are obvious differences between English and Roman history, although it is possible that the events surrounding Caesar's assassination were more familiar to the audience than those of the remote English past (the period of King John, for example). One of the advantages of looking at Julius Caesar from the perspective of the English history plays is that we are likely to find in both many continuities in political, moral, and social assumptions.

This is of special importance on the issue of republicanism. Nothing in Shakespeare's earlier plays suggests that he would find the cause of the conspirators attractive. On the contrary, Brutus and Cassius would seem to be linked with Jack Cade, Northumberland, Worcester, and Scroop as rebels against lawfully constituted authority. Shakespeare was no simple-minded exponent of the Tudor pieties about the divine right of kings, but he did hate the bloodshed and human grief associated with political upheaval. Revolution is associated with a vision of political chaos. The revolutionary cause of Brutus and Cassius has no natural appeal for Shakespeare. To this argument we may add the strongly monarchic sentiments of the English history plays and, in fact, of all Shakespeare's royal plays, even those with weak or evil kings.

Julius Caesar is unique among Shakespeare's works in giving the impression of regicide without actually having a king in it. Its subject is the structure of Roman politics at the near-accession of Caesar, but Shakespeare has adapted his Roman setting to the pattern of ideas in the English history plays, which are in turn a reflection of the realities of Elizabethan England. The presence of the Roman mob in Julius Caesar keeps us aware of the public character of the play, since the mob is the final arbiter of political power. The Roman mob is indistinguishable from the English mob of the history plays: they are unwashed, have stinking breaths and greasy caps, are vociferous, violent, capricious, fickle, and, above all, easily moved by any strong appeal to their emotions.

There is an emphasis on public life in Julius Caesar, with its appropriate duties, ceremonies, and style of speech, but one always has the sense of a contrast, implied or stated, between the public figure and the private person. Caesar “in his nightgown” (or dressing gown) conversing with his wife Calphurnia or inviting the conspirators—ironically, his “Good friends”—to “go in and taste some wine with me” (II.ii.126) is a very different character from the sardonic demigod of the Senate House putting down Metellus Cimber. And Antony's confidential and personal manner with the mob in his funeral oration proves to be only a calculated public show from which Antony himself stands aloof: “Mischief, thou art afoot, / Take thou what course thou wilt” (III.ii.254-5). This is a chilling anticlimax to the passions of the oration. After the brief but savage interlude of Cinna the Poet (III.iii), we see Antony again with his fellow triumvirs calmly pricking down the names of those who are to die, a bit of horsetrading with the lives of near relatives. Here is politics as naked power, all pretense of human concerns dropped, and the swiftness and lack of sentiment of Act IV, scene i, match the preceding scene of Cinna's absurd murder. Both scenes display the same shocking impersonality and viciousness of the political forces unleashed by Antony's oration.

In Brutus, the public-private conflict begins to develop its potentialities for tragedy. As he admits to Cassius (giving Cassius a wedge to split his resistance), he is “with himself at war” (I.ii.46). This is the generic condition of the tragic protagonist. As he tells Cassius in the quarrel scene, he is “armed so strong in honesty” that all threats, doubts, hesitations, second thoughts, and self-questionings pass by him “as the idle wind” (IV.iii.67-8). This is not literally what he says to Cassius, but one feels sympathetic to Cassius' exasperation with Brutus' four-square, priggish, and overbearing “honesty,” the bloody honorableness that Antony exposes so cuttingly in his oration. Brutus' inner conflict ends very abruptly in Act II, scene i, and public determinations replace any private doubts, although there is an air of foredoomed sadness that hangs over Brutus in Acts IV and V. His quarrel with Cassius seems to indicate that the conspiracy has gone sour, its sense of selflessness and dedication swallowed up by talk of money—“so much trash as may be graspèd thus” (IV.iii.26)—and Brutus is beginning to feel his isolation from the other conspirators.

We may say, then, that the tragedy of Brutus lies in the sacrifice of his private self to public and abstract commitments. We cannot argue away the human predicament stated so simply and with such fallible logic in Brutus' soliloquy about Caesar:

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 crowned.


“Personal” and “general”: this is the basis of Brutus' tragic choice. We know that he will choose the general, public good over any merely personal considerations, in the same generous or overweening spirit in which Caesar tells Artemidorus, “What touches us ourself shall be last served” (III.i.8). Yet I think Shakespeare wants us to grasp that the sacrifice of the personal, human cause to the general, political one always has tragic implications.

Brutus is primarily a sympathetic figure, yet there are many touches to indicate that, unlike the many tragic characters whom he foreshadows (especially Hamlet), he has very limited self-awareness. His garden soliloquy contemplating the death of Caesar is so full of logical flaws that one can only believe that these are intended to characterize Brutus' way of thinking, and Cassius' little plot to win Brutus depends strongly on flattery for its success. Cassius is an anomalous figure in these early scenes, very close to the conventional villain. His soliloquy at the end of Act I, scene ii, has many similarities to those of Iago and Edmund, and we are repelled by his smug gloating over how easy a mark Brutus is.

We are repelled by it because we are convinced that it is true. Brutus is represented as the only innocent idealist among the shrewd and rancorous conspirators; as Antony sums it up in his set speech at the end:

He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.


We are not surprised, therefore, that Brutus should make the three tactical errors that Plutarch notes: he spares Antony's life, he allows Antony to speak a funeral oration for Caesar, and he risks all by engaging the enemy at Philippi. We think the better of Brutus for all these decisions, but we are clearly meant to understand that Cassius would have done otherwise. “That spare Cassius” has the true conspiratorial temperament.

Brutus is sincerely disturbed by the human implications of the conspiracy. “Let's be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius” (II.i.166), he says, as if he needed to remind Cassius of the true purpose of the conspiracy, as he does later in the quarrel scene (IV.iii). There is much self-indulgence and wish-fulfillment in Brutus' desire to kill Caesar without having “dirty hands.” The murder teaches Brutus something about the real nature of killing, and in the exhilaration of the moment he is soon directing his compatriots in an elaborate blood bath:

                                                                                Stoop, Romans, stoop,
And let us bathe our hands in Caesar's blood
Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords.


“Up to the elbows” seems at first to be hyperbole, but the action indicates that the conspirators are actually “Signed in thy spoil, and crimsoned in thy lethe” (III.i.207), as Antony tells us. He begins his soliloquy by asking Caesar's pardon “That I am meek and gentle with these butchers” (III.i.256). “Butchers” is the direct opposite of “sacrificers,” but Brutus himself seems to have abandoned his first notion that the murder could be a clean, priestly sacrifice. If we need further proof of the tragic misdirection of Brutus, we need only listen to the cry of the Third Plebeian after Brutus' oration in the marketplace: “Let him be Caesar” (III.ii.46). This casual identification signifies the utter futility of all that Brutus and the conspirators have done.

As in the case of Richard II, Shakespeare is intent on controlling the audience's feelings toward Caesar, so that his own outrageous hubris, or insolence on the largest scale, seems to bring his fate upon him; but once the deed is done, the process is reversed and the insolent king becomes the sacrificial or tragic victim. Caesar's murder is brilliantly set in a context of insufferable pretension, in which he dares publicly to assert his superiority over all other mortal men. “I could be well moved, if I were as you” (III.i.58)—how full of scorn is that condescending gesture, but once Caesar is safely dead he becomes “the ruins of the noblest man / That ever livèd in the tide of times” (III.i.257-8). His physical infirmities, amplified from Plutarch, are forgotten, and in death he is such a potent and hieratic force that he is spoken of as the provider of precious relics.

If history is moral and didactic, as the Elizabethans believed, it could also be a teacher of dark and even paradoxical lessons. We may support the notion that Julius Caesar is Shakespeare's most difficult history play by a look at its remarkably ambivalent symbolism. Does the perturbation in nature represented by the storm and its portents serve as a warning of Caesar's tyranny or as an indication of the growing evil of conspiracy in the Roman state? Cassius and Calphurnia read the signs in directly opposite ways, and we are left to draw our own conclusions. Is the bloodletting by the conspirators a way of curing the body politic of its disease of Caesarism, or is it simply the mark of a hideous and brutal murder that must be avenged by more blood? Is the conspiracy a purifying fire that will burn away the “rubbish,” “trash,” and “offal” of Rome (I.iii.110-11) and make all new, or is it an uncontrollable and diabolic blaze that indiscriminately destroys everything in its path? Our inability to answer these questions with any conviction makes Julius Caesar a “problem play.”

Although there are many historical errors in Julius Caesar, especially anachronisms, Shakespeare did manage to create a convincing sense of ancient Rome. We are made to feel, chiefly through Brutus, that there is a set of characteristically Roman moral qualities: high-mindedness, self-control, the ability to rise above one's material circumstances, fortitude in the face of adversity, moral dedication, constancy of purpose, and a rigorous concern with personal honor. All these are virtues popularly associated with Stoicism in the Renaissance, and even though the Stoics opposed suicide, the willingness to kill oneself rather than live a base life as a captive seems to be a proof of the very resolution and nobility of mind which they admired.

Roman virtue is most admirably and convincingly presented in the domestic scene between Brutus and Portia, as the high-principled daughter of Cato the Utican insists on her prerogatives as Brutus' wife. She has already “made strong proof” of her “constancy,” or moral stamina, by giving herself “a voluntary wound / Here, in the thigh” (II.i.299-301)—and the gesture implies a wonderful candor between husband and wife. Brutus, of course, rises to the occasion. His answer to Portia's complaint that she is his “harlot, not his wife” (II.i.287) is in the simple, melodious, and serious style that characterizes this play:

You are my true and honourable wife,
As dear to me as are the ruddy drops
That visit my sad heart.


There are no memorable imaginative flourishes here (or anywhere else in Julius Caesar), yet what could be more perfect in tone and feeling for this context? “Ruddy” is a homely word, and the image of Brutus' blood “visiting” his “sad heart”—in Elizabethan English, “sad” is at once sorrowful and grave—carries through the domestic connotations. When Brutus says finally, “O ye gods! / Render me worthy of this noble wife” (II.i.302-3), we are assured that Portia's “bosom shall partake / The secrets of my heart” (305-6).

The first revelation of Portia's death is placed just at the point where the quarrel between Brutus and Cassius is beginning to wear itself out. Brutus, hinting at darker sorrows than those that have been expressed, says that he is “sick of many griefs” (IV.iii.142), for which Cassius advises him to be philosophical and rise above “accidental evils” (144). Then comes the sudden explosion of Brutus' inner grief: “No man bears sorrow better. Portia is dead” (145). Cassius is stunned—“Ha! Portia?” (146)—and Brutus reiterates with a dirgelike echo: “She is dead” (147). With perfect dramatic tact, Shakespeare has eliminated all empty moralizing from his passage and left the shocking news to carry its own emotional stress, although he does promote the effect of surprise by the prolonged caesura after “better.”

These lines seem to vindicate the simple, limited, and tightly controlled Roman style of this play. It is a style that tends to be very literal, without any figures of speech or rhetorical adornments to support its purposes; yet it is often capable of charging the lines with dramatic intensity and conviction. Whatever its imaginative limitations, the Roman style expresses admirably the simple and strong verities of Roman virtue.

Shakespeare's play is based very closely on Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch, The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, first published in 1579 and reissued in 1595. It seems likely that Shakespeare used the edition of 1595, although the differences between these two editions are minor. Like most Elizabethan translators, North did not go directly to the Greek text of Plutarch, but used the excellent French translation by Jacques Amyot published in 1559. North was no scholar of either Greek or French, but what his version lacks in accuracy it makes up for in vigorous and vivid style. It has the pungency of characterization and liveliness of incidental detail that would make it very attractive to a dramatist looking for material. Shakespeare is sometimes quite close to the phrasing of North; in fact, there are places where he is simply versifying North's prose. Much more significant, however, are Shakespeare's departures from North, where he invents freely or transposes details from a different context.

Shakespeare made direct use of three of Plutarch's “Lives” for his play: Julius Caesar, Marcus Brutus, and Marcus Antonius. “The Life of Marcus Brutus” was the most important for Shakespeare's purposes, partly because it has so many hints of what was to be Shakespeare's typical tragic protagonist and partly because it is so well written. Shakespeare may also have used details from other “Lives” of Plutarch, such as those of Dion, Cicero, Cato the Younger, and Pompey.

Critics have tended to neglect the comparisons between Grecians and Romans that follow each set of parallel lives. Plutarch's method is to pair a noble Grecian with a noble Roman and then to cap the biographies with a brief comparison of the two in which the superiority of Greek or Roman qualities is debated—and usually decided in favor of the old-fashioned Greek virtues. Thus Brutus is set against Dion, Antony against Demetrius, and, in a comparison that has not survived, Caesar is matched with Alexander the Great. Plutarch shows a wonderful ability in these pairs to make pithy generalizations about character.

It is well to keep in mind that the events surrounding the assassination of Caesar were very well known in Shakespeare's time, so that just about any Elizabethan book may contain some allusion to Caesar or Brutus. North's Plutarch is unquestionably Shakespeare's direct source for Julius Caesar, but Shakespeare must have picked up a good deal of information from other sources, including the standard encyclopedias and reference works of the period.

On September 21, 1599, Thomas Platter, a Swiss physician and gentleman traveler, saw a play in London that was almost certainly Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. He made this entry in his notebook:

After lunch on September 21, around two o'clock, I traveled with my party across the water and saw, in the house with the straw-thatched roof, the tragedy of the first emperor, Julius Caesar, skillfully acted by about fifteen persons. At the end of the play, according to their custom, they danced—two in men's costumes and two in women's—most elegantly and admirably with each other.

Since the Globe theater was built in 1599 and opened in the fall, it seems likely that Julius Caesar was one of the first plays to be presented there. Besides helping to establish this date, Platter's account gives us some interesting theatrical details: the playhouse was located across the Thames from “the City” of London; “about fifteen persons” could double the thirty-nine or more distinct roles in Julius Caesar; and the tragedy was concluded with an elaborate jig.

We can easily understand the play's attractiveness for a foreign visitor and his party. If the number of references to it are a guide to its audience appeal, Julius Caesar seems to have been very popular and successful in its own time. It was one of the plays performed at the marriage of Princess Elizabeth and the Elector Palatine in the winter of 1612-13—it is called Caesars Tragedye in a court record—and it was played before the King and Queen on January 31, 1637, at St. James, and on November 13, 1638, at the Cockpit.

Julius Caesar maintained its popularity from the Restoration to about the last quarter of the eighteenth century, being produced at least once in almost every year. Its restrained, “classical” style undoubtedly suited the temper of this period; it was never thought necessary to adapt Julius Caesar for a more refined age, as so many other plays of Shakespeare were mercilessly altered and rewritten in order to rescue them from their own barbarism. The text of the play, however, was not left without some improvements. One may get a good idea of the Julius Caesar most eighteenth-century audiences saw from the acting version printed by John Bell in 1773. To a speech of Brutus taken out of its context and placed at his exit, the editor, Francis Gentleman, has this characteristic note: “Here the transposed lines come in advantageously for the actor's going off.” Still, these additions, transpositions, doublings of roles, and deletions are very minor when compared with the drastic adaptation of other Shakespearean plays in the same period.

In the early eighteenth century, Julius Caesar was a staple of the repertory of the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, with Barton Booth notable as Brutus and Robert Wilks as Antony. In the theater in Lincoln's Inn Fields, James Quin was rivaling Booth for his presentation of Brutus, and he played the part many times until 1750. During David Garrick's regime, Julius Caesar was never presented at Drury Lane, although he once contemplated acting Cassius. From 1780 to 1812 there are no recorded performances of the play; it seems to have fallen into a decline after a long period of great popularity. It was revived by John Philip Kemble at Covent Garden in 1812 and in each subsequent year to 1817. This production attempted to recreate the splendor of ancient Rome.

Julius Caesar was not a great favorite of the nineteenth-century theater, perhaps for the very reasons that had made it so appealing to neoclassical sensibilities of the Restoration and the eighteenth century. Some memorable renditions of the play were C. M. Young's Brutus, William Charles Macready's Brutus and Cassius, and Samuel Phelps's Brutus and Cassius. Although Macready played Brutus more frequently, he confessed to “a peculiar pleasure” in the role of Cassius “as one among Shakespeare's most perfect specimens of idiosyncrasy.” The Royal Theatre of Saxe-Meiningen, on a visit to London, presented Julius Caesar at Drury Lane in 1881 with spectacular mob scenes. The review in the Telegraph spoke of “those forests of hands and arms, those staccato shouts, that brilliancy of emphasis, the whirl and rout and maddened frenzy of an excited mob.”

The most successful nineteenth-century revival of Julius Caesar was that of Herbert Beerbohm Tree in 1898 at His Majesty's Theatre, where the play was shown for a hundred nights to enthusiastic audiences. this production was designed and supervised by the painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, who attempted to picture ancient Rome in all its architectural magnificence. This is not exactly Shakespearean, but one can understand why this splendid production was revived in 1899, in each year from 1905 to 1911, and in 1913. Tree himself played Antony, and he so arranged the play in three acts that he had each of the tableau curtains entirely to himself, thus giving the impression that Antony was the leading part.

For various reasons, perhaps chiefly political, Julius Caesar was a more popular play in nineteenth-century America than it was in England. It could have been seen in New York in fifty-one different years in the nineteenth century, and in the period 1835-55 it was revived fifteen times in Philadelphia. Its first production was in Charleston in 1774. Among outstanding actors, Edwin Booth was pre-eminent as Brutus and Laurence Barrett as Cassius; Charles Kean and W. C. Macready also performed in New York. In a memorable performance at the Winter Garden on November 25, 1864, the three Booth brothers acted together in a tercentenary benefit to raise money for a statue of Shakespeare in Central Park. Junius Brutus Booth played Cassius, Edwin Booth played Brutus, and John Wilkes Booth played Antony.

In the twentieth century, Julius Caesar has been frequently revived, with most of the leading Shakespearean actors doing a stint as Antony, Brutus, or Cassius. The Mercury Theatre production of Orson Welles, in New York in 1937, put a bold, modern-dress emphasis on the theme of fascism, as did the production at the Embassy Theatre in London in 1939. This inescapable political implication may now seem a barrier to modern directors looking for a fresh interpretation of the play. In 1953 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer made an impressive movie of Julius Caesar directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, with Marlon Brando as Antony, John Gielgud as Cassius, and James Mason as Brutus. Despite the astonishing variety of accents (including Edmond O'Brien's Casca as a Chicago-style gangster) the movie showed insight into the emotional effects of the tragedy.

René Girard (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7183

SOURCE: Girard, René. “Collective Violence and Sacrifice in Julius Caesar.” In New Casebooks: Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare, edited by Richard Wilson, pp. 108-27. Hampshire, U.K.: Palgrave, 2002.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1991, Girard argues that “Julius Caesar is the play in which the violent essence of the theatre and of human culture itself are revealed.”]

The theatre deals with human conflict. Curiously, dramatic criticism discusses the subject very little. Can we automatically assume that Shakespeare shares the commonsense view according to which conflict is based on differences? Can we assume that tragic conflict is due to the different opinions or values of the various protagonists? This is never true in Shakespeare. Of two persons who do not get along, we say: they have their differences. In Shakespeare the reverse is true: the characters disagree because they agree too much.

Let me explain this paradox. Why does Brutus hate Caesar? Most people will answer that they stand on opposite sides in a meaningful political struggle. This is true in the sense that Brutus is a sincere Republican and that Caesar's popularity makes him a real threat to the Republic, but the reason for Brutus' hatred of Caesar lies elsewhere.

To understand this hatred we must start from its opposite which is the love of Brutus for Caesar. Yes, Brutus loves Caesar dearly. He says so and we can believe him; Brutus never lies.

To Brutus, Caesar is what we call today a role model and much more; he is an incomparable guide, an unsurpassable teacher. To a Roman with political ambition, and Brutus' ambition is great, being patterned on Caesar's, Caesar is the unbeatable champion and therefore an insurmountable obstacle. No one can hope to equal him and become another Caesar, and this is what Brutus really wants to be. Far from excluding hatred, Brutus' love for Caesar necessarily leads to it. Caesar is Brutus' rival because he is his model and vice versa. The more Brutus loves Caesar, the more he hates him, and vice versa. This ambivalence must not be defined in Freudian but mimetic terms.

I call the desire of Brutus mimetic or mediated desire. Everything Brutus wants to have and to be, he owes to Caesar; far from having differences with Caesar he has none and that is why he hates him. He is like a lover who sees the woman he loves in the arms of another man. The woman here is Rome herself. And Brutus loves that woman because Caesar loves her. My erotic comparison is not psychoanalytical; it is inspired by Shakespeare's comedies which are as full of mimetic desire as the tragedies.

Mimetic desire is the mutual borrowing of desire by two friends who become antagonists as a result. When mimetic rivalry becomes intense, tragic conflict results. Intense conflict and intense friendship are almost identical in Shakespeare. This paradox is a source of linguistic effects that should not be dismissed as pure rhetoric. They are highly meaningful. Beloved enemy is no rhetorical expression; it is exactly what Caesar is to Brutus.

When mimetic rivalry escalates beyond a certain point, the rivals engage in endless conflict which undifferentiates them more and more; they all become doubles of one another. During the civil war, Brutus sounds increasingly authoritarian and majestic, just like Caesar. In order to be Caesar, Brutus acts more and more like Caesar. After the murder, in his speech to the Romans, Brutus imitates the terse prose style of Caesar. The shout that rises from the crowd: ‘Let him be Caesar’, is enormously meaningful. Sincere Republican though he is, Brutus unconsciously turns into a second Caesar and this must be interpreted less in terms of individual psychology than as an effect of the worsening mimetic crisis. Caesar is a threat and, in order to restore the Republic, he must be eliminated; but, whoever eliminates him, ipso facto, becomes another Caesar, which is what Brutus secretly desires, anyway, and so do the people themselves. The destruction of the Republic is this very process; no single man is responsible for it; everybody is.

The political genius of Rome is the ability of its Republican institutions to accommodate the kind of rivalry that exists between Brutus and Caesar. This is true but only up to a point. The Republic is a cursus honorum, and as long as rival ambitions keep each other in check, liberty survives. Rival ambitions can become so intense, however, that they no longer tolerate one another. Instead of competing within the limits of the law, the rival leaders turn violent and treat each other as enemies. They all accuse each other of destroying Republican institutions and this false excuse quickly becomes the truth of the situation. All of them together are destroying the Republic.

We cannot say that these leaders have their differences; they all want the same thing; they all copy each other; they all behave in the same way; what Shakespeare portrays is no conflict of differences, but a plague of undifferentiation.

The very first lines of the play suggest that the populace itself partakes of this levelling process. The common people show up on the Forum without the insignia of their profession, reflecting the undifferentiation at the top. The Roman Republic is unravelling from top to bottom:

Hence! home, you idle creatures, get you home!
Is this a holiday? What! know you not,
Being mechanical, you ought not to walk
Upon a labouring day without the sign
Of your profession?

These Romans are not soldiers but their regular organisation resembles the military and their departure from tradition recalls the confusion of ranks in the Greek army, such as Ulysses describes in Troilus and Cressida, the ‘choking’ or ‘neglection’ of Degree. The word Degree means the differential principle thanks to which the cultural and social order is what it is. In the eyes of Shakespeare, the end of the Roman Republic is a historical example of such a crisis.

I think that Shakespeare conceives that crisis exactly as all traditional societies do; his genius does not contradict and yet transcends traditional wisdom. The reason why the mimetic crisis exacerbates more and more is the peculiar logic that it obeys, the logic abundantly exemplified in Julius Caesar, the logic of mimetic rivalry and mimetic contagion. The more mimetic desire there is, the more it generates, and the more attractive it becomes as a mimetic model.

A conspiracy is a mimetic association of murderers; it comes into being at an advanced but not yet the most advanced stage of a mimetic crisis. Shakespeare dedicates his first two Acts to the genesis of the conspiracy against Caesar, and he treats the subject in full conformity with the logic of mimetic desire.

The instigator of the conspiracy is Cassius and his manoeuvres are dramatised at length. Once the conspiracy has become a reality, Brutus agrees to lead it, but its real father is Cassius who is the dominant figure at the beginning. Cassius plays the same role as Pandarus, the erotic go-between, at the beginning of Troilus and Cressida; he works very hard at instilling in his associates his own desire to kill Caesar.

Cassius' mimetic incitement is very similar to what we have in many comedies, except for the fact that the people he manipulates are mimetically seduced in choosing not the same erotic object as their mediator but the same victim, a common target of assassination.

The conspiracy originates in the envious soul of Cassius. Envy and mimetic desire are one and the same. Caesar portrays the man as a self-tortured intellectual unable to enjoy sensuous pleasures. Unlike his modern posterity, this early prototype of ressentiment—Nietzsche's word for mimetic envy—has not yet lost all capacity for bold action but he excels only in the clandestine and terroristic type exemplified by the conspiracy.

Cassius reveals his envy in everything he says. Unable to compete with Caesar on Caesar's ground, he claims superiority in small matters such as a swimming contest that he once had with the great man. Had it not been for himself, Cassius, his rival, who helped him across the Tiber, Caesar would have drowned. Cassius refuses to worship a god who owes him his very life.

Cassius' invidious comparisons, his slanted anecdotes and his perpetual flattery of Brutus are worthy of Pandarus and, therefore, they also recall Ulysses, the political counterpart of the ‘bawd’ in Troilus and Cressida:

Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that ‘Caesar’?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Write them together, yours is as fair a name;
Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well;
Weigh them, it is as heavy; conjure with 'em,
‘Brutus’ will start a spirit as soon as ‘Caesar’.
Now in the names of all the gods at once,
Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed
That he is grown so great?


A little later, Cassius resorts to the language of Ulysses with Achilles in Troilus and Cressida, also for the purpose of stirring up the spirit of mimetic rivalry in a man obsessed by a successful rival. The two plays are very close to each other from the standpoint of their mimetic operation.

The second man recruited for the conspiracy is Casca; he is superstitious in the extreme. He describes a violent but banal equinoctial storm in terms of supernatural signs and portents exclusively. Shakespeare does not believe in astrology and, in order to refute this nonsense authoritatively, he resorts to no less a man than Cicero, who contradicts Casca's interpretation. This is the philosopher's only intervention in the play.

The mimetic seducer, Cassius, is no more superstitious than Cicero; his famous saying on the subject shows it:

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.


Cassius does not believe in astrology but, for the purpose of seducing Casca into the conspiracy, he can speak the language of astrology. Instead of deriding his interlocutor's irrationality, he tries to channel it in the direction of Caesar. What he condemns in Casca is his failure to blame Caesar for the terrifying storm:

Now could I, Casca, name to thee a man
Most like this dreadful night,
That thunders, lightens, opens graves and roars
As doth the lion in the Capitol—
A man no mightier than thyself, or me,
In personal action, yet prodigious grown,
And fearful, as these strange eruptions are.


Cassius never mentions Caesar by name because he wants Casca to name him first; this credulous man will believe that he discovered Caesar's evil influence all by himself. Casca finally comes up with the right name:

'Tis Caesar that you mean; is it not, Cassius?

Cassius literally hypnotises Casca into believing that Caesar is responsible for the bad weather. If someone must be most like this dreadful night, why not Caesar, the most powerful man in Rome? Seeing that Cassius seems angry rather than afraid, Casca feels somewhat reassured and, in his eagerness for more reassurance, he makes the other man's anger his own; he eagerly espouses Cassius' quarrel against Caesar.

Casca's decision to join the murderers is more disturbing than Brutus' because, unlike Brutus, the man is obsequious with Caesar and totally unconcerned with abuses of power and other political niceties. He is petty and envious but not talented enough to feel jealous of such a towering figure as Caesar. His real personal rivals belong to a lower type. If Cassius had directed his mimetic urge toward someone else, Casca would have chosen the someone else. His participation in the conspiracy has nothing to do with whatever Caesar is or might become; it rests entirely on his own mimetic suggestibility, stimulated by fear. Caesar is being turned into what we call a scapegoat and Shakespeare insists on all the scapegoat signs that designate him to the crowd, his lameness, his epileptic fear and even a bad ear, an incipient deafness that Shakespeare seems to have invented all by himself. The other physical infirmities are in Plutarch and Shakespeare emphasises them because he understands their importance in the overall scheme of victimisation.

After Brutus and Casca, we witness the recruiting of Ligarius, a third citizen, into the conspiracy. The man is so susceptible to mimetic pressure, so ready for conspiratorial mischief that, although very ill, as soon as he understands that the gathering around Brutus must have some violent purpose, he throws his bandages away and follows the leader.

Ligarius does not know the name of his future victim and he does not even want to know. Brutus gives no indication that he finds this behaviour shocking; his equanimity is as disturbing as Ligarius' irresponsibility. This virtuous Republican sees nothing wrong, it seems, in a Roman citizen blindly surrendering his freedom of choice into the hands of another:

                                                                      Set on your foot,
And with a heart new fir'd I follow you
To do I know not what; but it sufficeth
That Brutus leads me on.
                                                                      Follow me then.


The times are nasty and normally law-abiding Romans are more and more easily swayed in favour of murder, less and less selective regarding the choice of their victims. Being part of the crisis, the genesis of the conspiracy is itself a dynamic process, a segment of an escalation in which the murder of Caesar comes first, then the murder of Cinna and finally the ever intensified violence that leads to Philippi. Instead of putting an end to the crisis, the murder of Caesar speeds up its acceleration.

Let us make the mimetic significance of what we read quite explicit. The intensification and diffusion of mimetic rivalry has turned all citizens into hostile carbon copies of each other, mimetic doubles. At first these doubles are still paired in conformity with the mimetic history that they have in common; they have been fighting for the same objects and, in this sense, they truly ‘belong’ to one another. This is the case of Brutus and Caesar. Conflicts are still ‘rational’ to the extent at least that each double is truly entitled to call his antagonist ‘his own’.

This element of rationality is still present in the case of Brutus. It seems that Brutus would not have to be recruited at all, since he really hates Caesar, but he is a law abiding citizen and, were it not for the mimetic incitement of Cassius, his hatred, intense as it is, would never become homicidal.

When the crisis gets worse, this last element of rationality disappears. When mimetic effects constantly intensify, the disputed objects disappear or become irrelevant. The mimetic influx must find some other outlet and it affects the choice of the only entities left inside the system, the doubles themselves. Mimetic contamination determines more and more the choice of antagonists.

At this advanced stage of the mimetic crisis, many people can exchange their own doubles, their own mimetic rivals for the double of someone else. This is what Casca does. The someone else is a mediator of hatred and no longer a mediator of desire, Cassius. This is a new stage in the process of violent undifferentiation. The more ‘perfect’ the doubles are as doubles, the easier it becomes to substitute one for another.

With each of the three Roman citizens successively recruited for the conspiracy, this kind of substitution becomes easier and we go down one more notch in regard to these individuals' ability to think by themselves, to use their reason and to behave in a responsible way.

It is less a matter of individual psychology than the rapid march of mimetic desire itself. As the conspiracy becomes larger, the job of attracting new members becomes easier. The combined mimetic influence of those already attracted makes the chosen target more and more attractive mimetically. As the crisis worsens, the relative importance of mimesis versus rationality goes up.

We have reached a point when dual conflicts give way to associations of several people against a single one, usually a highly visible individual, a popular statesman—Julius Caesar, for instance. When a small number of people clandestinely get together for the purpose of doing away with one of their fellow citizens, we call their association a conspiracy and so does Shakespeare. Both the process and the word are prominently displayed in Julius Caesar.

Whereas the mimesis of desire means disunity among those who cannot possess their common object together, this mimesis of conflict means more solidarity among those who can fight the same enemy together and who promise each other to do so. Nothing unites men like a common enemy but, for the time being, only a few people are thus united, and they are united for the purpose of disturbing the peace of the community as a whole. That is why the conspiratorial stage is even more destructive of the social order than the more fragmented enmities that preceded it.

The forming of a conspiracy is a sinister threshold on the road to civil war, significant enough to call for a solemn warning which the author paradoxically places in the mouth of the conspiracy's own reluctant leader, Brutus. There is logic in this paradox, however, since Brutus' purpose is to defend threatened Republican institutions. Brutus himself is aware that his violent medicine could be as bad as the disease and even worse; it could make the recovery of the patient impossible and, indeed, it will. Even though Brutus feels that he must join the conspiracy, this great defender of traditional institutions is horrified by the historical sign that the forming of a conspiracy constitutes:

                                                                                          O Conspiracy!
Sham'st thou to show thy dang'rous brow by night,
When evils are most free? O then, by day
Where wilt thou find a cavern dark enough
To mask thy monstrous visage? Seek none, Conspiracy!
Hide it in smiles and affability;
For if thou put thy native semblance on,
Not Erebus itself were dim enough
To hide thee from prevention.


The conspiracy is said to have a monstrous visage and it certainly does in the usual Shakespearean sense of uniting contradictory features in some kind of artificial mimetic unity, something which happens only at the most advanced stages of the mimetic crisis.

We should not believe that, because he represents the conspiracy harshly, Shakespeare must feel political sympathy for Caesar. At first sight, no doubt, Caesar seems more generous and kind than his opponents. Whereas Brutus hates Caesar as much as he loves him, Caesar's love is free from hatred. But Caesar can afford to be generous; neither Brutus nor any other Roman can be an obstacle to him anymore. This is not enough to demonstrate that Caesar stands above the mimetic law.

On the morning of the murder, Caesar first follows the advice of his wife who is terrified because she has been dreaming of his violent death, and he decides not to go to the Senate; but, then, Decius reinterprets the dream for him and he goes to the Senate after all. It takes only a few words of ambiguous flattery to change Caesar's mind. He has become a mimetic weathervane.

The more the dictator rises above other men, the more autonomous he subjectively feels and the less he is in reality. At the supreme instant, just before falling under the conspirators' blows, in a strange fit of exaltation, he hubristically compares himself to the North Star, the one motionless light in the firmament. His self-sufficiency is no less deceptive than the erotic ‘narcissism’ of many characters in the comedies.

The more intense our mimetic pride, the more fragile it becomes, even in a physical sense. Just as the crowd and as the conspirators themselves, Caesar is an example of what happens to men caught in the crisis of Degree. His common sense has left him, just as it will leave Brutus a few moments later. Because of the crisis, the quality of all desires is deteriorating. Instead of feeling neurotically inferior, as his unsuccessful rivals do, Caesar feels neurotically superior. His symptoms look completely different, but solely because of his position inside a fragile mimetic structure; underneath, the disease is the same. If Caesar found himself in the same position relative to some man as Brutus does relative to him, he, too, would join a conspiracy against that man.

Brutus wants the murder to be as discreet, orderly and ‘non-violent’ as it possibly can. Unfortunately for the conspiracy, he himself proves incapable of abiding by his own rule. Losing his sang-froid in the hot blood of his victim, Brutus gets carried away in most dangerous fashion at the most crucial instant, right after the murder. He suggests to the conspirators that they should all bathe their arms in Caesar's blood up to the elbows and smear their swords with this blood.

Needless to say, our blood-spattered conspirators do not make a favourable impression, but they make a very strong one and they provide the already unstable populace with a potent mimetic model, a model which many citizens will imitate even and especially if they reject it most violently. The subsequent events tell the whole story. After listening to Brutus, then to Mark Antony, the crowd reacts by collectively putting to death an unfortunate bystander, Cinna, in a grotesque parody of what the conspirators themselves have done. The crowd becomes a mirror in which the murderers contemplate the truth of their action. They wanted to become mimetic models for the people and they are, but not the kind that they intended.

When they kill Cinna, the people mimic Caesar's murder but in a spirit of revenge, not of Republican virtue. Mimetic desire is perceptive and it will immediately detect any discrepancy between the words and the deeds of its models; it will always pattern itself on what these models do and not on what they say.

Cinna is the first totally uninvolved and perfectly innocent victim. He is a poet and he has nothing to do with the conspirator named Cinna; he politely says so to the crowd. His only connection with Caesar's murder is a fortuitous coincidence of names. He even happens to be a friend of Caesar and he mentions the fact, but to no avail; one anonymous shout comes from the mob: ‘Tear him to pieces.’

A mob never lacks ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ reasons for tearing its victims to pieces. The more numerous these reasons, the more insignificant they really are. Learning that Cinna is a bachelor, the married men in the mob feel insulted. Others resent the poet in this harmless individual and one more shout is heard: ‘Tear him for his bad verse!’ Obediently, mimetically, the mob tears the wrong Cinna to pieces.

When it was first organised, the conspiracy against Caesar was still an unusual enterprise that required a rather lengthy genesis; once Caesar is murdered, conspiracies sprout everywhere and their violence is so sudden and haphazard that the word itself, conspiracy, no longer seems right for the spontaneous enormity of the disorder. Violent imitation is responsible for this as for everything else and that is the reason we have a single continuous process instead of the discontinuous synchronic patterns that the structuralists want to discover everywhere, in a misguided denial of history.

The general trend is clear: it takes less and less time for more and more people to polarise against more and more victims, for flimsier and flimsier reasons. A little earlier, Ligarius' indifference to the identity of his victim was still an exceptional phenomenon; after Caesar's murder, this indifference becomes commonplace and the last criteria disappear in the selection of victims. Mimesis learns fast and, after only one single try, it will do routinely and automatically what seemed almost unthinkable a moment before.

The contagion is such that the entire community is finally divided into two vast ‘conspiracies’ that can only do one thing: go to war with each other; they have the same structure as individual doubles; one is led by Brutus and Cassius and the other by Octavius Caesar and Mark Antony. Shakespeare sees this civil conflict not as an ordinary war but as the total unleashing of the mob:

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;
And Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Hate 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,
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.


Just as Brutus, in Act II, solemnly proclaimed the advent of the fearful conspiracy, Mark Antony informs us in this soliloquy that an even worse stage of the crisis has arrived; his name for it is: Domestic fury or fierce civil strife. As each new stage of the crisis is reached, Shakespeare has someone make a rather formal and impersonal speech about it. These speeches do not really tell us anything about the character who utters them; they are unnecessary to the plot; they are speeches about the various stages in the mimetic crisis.

Domestic fury and fierce civil strife culminate in the battle of Philippi, which Shakespeare does not treat as a banal military encounter but as the climactic epiphany of the mimetic crisis, the final explosion of the mob that gathered after the murder of Caesar, when the conspiracy began to metastasise. […]

Instead of a few victims killed by still relatively small mobs, thousands of people are killed by thousands of others who are really their brothers and do not have the faintest idea of why they or their victims should die.

At Philippi, total violence is unleashed and it seems that the point of no return has been reached. No hope remains and yet, in the very last lines of the play, all of a sudden, peace returns. This is no ordinary victory, no mere overpowering of the weak by the strong. This conclusion is a rebirth of Degree; it concludes the mimetic crisis itself.

The return to peace seems rooted in the suicide of Brutus. How could that be? In two very brief but majestic speeches, the victors, Mark Antony and Octavius Caesar, eulogise Brutus. Mark Antony speaks first:

This was the noblest Roman of them all:
All the conspirators save only he,
Did what they did in envy of great Caesar;
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!’


This famous tribute is not quite truthful; Brutus was free only from the basest kind of envy. This truth is sacrificed to the new spirit now blowing, a spirit of reconciliation.

Sensing a political master stroke, Octavius Caesar consecrates the new Brutus by granting full military honours to him. By absolving Brutus of envy, Mark Antony and Octavius Caesar sanctify his political motives. Only the loving side of his ambivalence toward Caesar remains visible; we remember the words of Brutus after he killed Caesar: ‘I slew my best lover’; we remember his words before he killed himself:

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


It seems that both Caesar and Brutus gave their lives for the same cause, in a mysterious consummation that makes Pax Romana possible once again.

Up to that point, unanimity had eluded both parties; neither the Republicans nor their opponents could achieve it. Caesar's death was divisive: one part of the people united against Caesar and around Brutus while the other part united against Brutus and around Caesar. If Brutus and Caesar become one in death, then all the people can unite against and around the same double-headed god.

To Brutus, this posthumous apotheosis would seem the ultimate derision, the supreme betrayal. It makes him a junior partner in the enterprise that he was desperately trying to prevent, the creation of a new monarchy. But the real Brutus no longer matters; a mythical figure has replaced him inside a newly emerging structure of meaning. According to this new vision, the Roman Emperor is both an absolute monarch and the official protector of the Republic, its only legitimate heir.

Caesar's murder has become the foundational violence of the Roman Empire.

What does it mean for violence to be foundational? Mimetic theory has its own interpretation of this and it throws a great deal of light on what Shakespeare is doing. Mimetic theory believes in the reality of the mimetic crises portrayed by Shakespeare, and, from their nature, as well as from a great many other clues, it speculates that these crises, in primitive societies, must be concluded by unanimous mimetic polarisations against single victims or a few victims only; this hypothetical resolution is the original sacrifice and I call it foundational murder, foundational violence.

This original sacrifice means that human communities unite around some transfigured victim. There is nothing genuinely transcendental or metaphysical about the foundational murder. It is similar to mimetic polarisations of the conspiracy type except for one difference, crucial no doubt from a social viewpoint but in itself minor: it is unanimous. Unanimity means that the people suddenly find themselves without enemies and, lacking fuel, the spirit of vengeance becomes extinguished. The unanimity is the automatic end-product of the mimetic escalation itself; it can almost be predicted from the constantly increasing size of the mimetic polarisations that precede it. Shakespeare sees the importance of this question and that is why the rivalry of Brutus and Mark Antony first takes the form of rival speeches in front of the Roman mob. The real battle is a battle for the interpretation of Caesar's murder.

The conclusion is not the only reason for defining the origin and substance of sacrifice as I just did. There are many indications in Julius Caesar that Shakespeare espoused this idea.

I see a first reason in the references to the collective expulsion of the last king of Rome, Tarquin. Both Cassius and Brutus invoke this event as a precedent for the murder they contemplate; here is what Brutus says in his soliloquy of Act II, scene i:

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.

(ll. 52-4)

Initially, the violence against Tarquin was an illegal act, one more violence in a violent escalation, just like Caesar's murder when it is committed, but Tarquin's expulsion met with the unanimous approval of the people and it put an end to a crisis of Degree; instead of dividing the people along factional lines, it united them and new institutions sprang from it. It is the real foundation of the Republic.

Brutus sees the murder of Caesar as a ritual sacrifice ordained by the murder of Tarquin. He says so in his great speech to the conspirators:

Let's be sacrificers but not butchers, Caius,
.....Let's kill him boldly but not wrathfully;
Let's carve him as a dish fit for the gods.


Brutus interprets sacrifice as a re-enactment of the foundational violence, the expulsion of Tarquin, with a different victim, Caesar. The sole purpose is to rejuvenate the existing order. This is the definition of sacrifice according to mimetic theory, the re-enactment of the foundational violence. The coincidence between mimetic theory and Shakespearean tragedy is perfect.

In connection with this foundational violence, another passage of Julius Caesar which I already mentioned is essential, namely, Calphurnia's dream. If we go back to it and to its reinterpretation by Decius, we can see immediately that it is more than a prophecy of Caesar's murder, it is a literal definition of its foundational status at the end of the play.

First, let us read Caesar's initial account:

She dreamt to-night she saw my statue,
Which, like a fountain with a hundred spouts,
Did run pure blood; and many lusty Romans
Came smiling and did bathe their hands in it.
And these does she apply for warnings and portents
And evils imminent, and on her knee
Hath begg'd that I will stay at home to-day.


One of the conspirators, Decius Brutus, immediately reinterprets the dream:

                    This dream is all amiss interpreted,
It was a vision fair and fortunate.
Your statue spouting blood in many pipes,
In which so many smiling Romans bath'd,
Signifies that from you great Rome shall suck
Reviving blood, and that great men shall press
For tinctures, stains, relics, and cognizance.
This by Calphurnia's dream is signified.


The author found Calphurnia's dream in Plutarch, as well as her terrified reaction to it, but, as far as I know, Decius' reinterpretation is a pure invention of Shakespeare, and there are very few in this play. From the point of view of our foundational violence, it is the essential text.

The two texts together are a superb definition of the foundational murder, the original sacrifice, a definition that takes its mimetic ambivalence into account. The two interpretations seem to contradict each other, but in reality they are both true. The first corresponds to what Caesar's murder is at first, during the play, a source of extreme disorder, and the second to what this same murder becomes in the conclusion, the source of the new imperial order. Brutus' death triggers this transformation but its role is secondary. It is the first ritual sacrifice of the new order, ordained to a new divinity, Caesar himself. Ironically, Brutus, who wanted to sacrifice Caesar to the Roman Republic, is the one who ends up carved as a dish fit for the gods, and the real god is Caesar. Caesar is a god because his murder is the paramount event, the pivot upon which the violence of the crisis slowly revolved in order to generate a new Roman and universal Degree.

There is a question the critics have always asked regarding the composition of Julius Caesar: why did Shakespeare locate the murder of Caesar in the third Act, almost at the precise centre of the play, instead of locating it at the conclusion, as a more conventional playwright would have done?

Can a play in which the hero dies in the wrong place be a real tragedy; in other words, can it be satisfactory as entertainment? Is it not the juxtaposition of two plays rather than a single one, a first tragedy about Caesar's murder and a second one about the murderers?

The answer is clear; Julius Caesar is centred neither on Caesar nor on his murderers; it is not even about Roman history but about collective violence itself. The real subject is the violent crowd. Julius Caesar is the play in which the violent essence of the theatre and of human culture itself are revealed. Shakespeare is the first tragic poet and thinker who focuses relentlessly on the foundational murder.

Shakespeare is not interested primarily in Caesar, or in Brutus, or even in Roman history. What fascinates him obviously is the exemplary nature of the events he portrays; he is obviously aware that the only reason why collective violence is essential to tragedy is that it has been and it remains essential to human culture as such. He is asking himself why the same murder that cannot reconcile the people at one moment will do the trick a little later, how the murder of Caesar can be a source of disorder first, and then a source of order, how the sacrificial miscarriage of Brutus can become the basis for a new sacrificial order.

To shift the murder from the conclusion to the centre of this play means more or less what it means for an astronomer to focus his telescope on the enormously large but infinitely distant object he is studying. Shakespeare goes straight to what has always been the hidden substance of all tragedy and he confronts it explicitly.

Tragedy is a by-product of sacrifice; it is sacrifice without the immolation of the victim, an attenuated form of ritual sacrifice, just as ritual sacrifice itself is a first attenuation of the original murder. Like the great tragic poets of Greece but much more radically, Shakespeare turns sacrifice against itself, against its own sacrificial and cathartic function, and he uses it for a revelation of the foundational murder.

Julius Caesar was written in such a way, however, that it can be read and performed sacrificially and cathartically. Traditional interpretations and stage performances almost invariably turn the play into some kind of monument to the glory of both the republic and the Empire, of ancient Rome as a whole. Shakespeare wrote the play at two levels, the traditional one which is sacrificial, and the anti-sacrificial one which I am trying to formulate.

If we consider the amount of collective violence in this play, even in purely quantitative terms, we will see that collective violence and sacrifice are its real subject. Not counting Philippi, three instances of collective violence are either displayed on the stage or prominently mentioned: the murder of Caesar, the lynching of the unfortunate Cinna and the expulsion of Tarquin.

Of the three, Caesar's murder is the most important, of course, and no less than three different interpretations of it play a significant role in the play; first we have the Republican sacrifice of Brutus, before the murder occurs; then we have this same murder as total disorder; and then, finally, this same deed becomes the founding of a new order, the original sacrifice from which great Rome shall suck reviving blood. There is not one thing in this play that does not lead to the murder if it occurs before it, and that does not proceed from it if it occurs after it. The murder is the hub around which everything revolves. Who said that this play lacks unity?

The dramatic process I have described contradicts all political interpretations of Julius Caesar. Political questions are all of the same differential type: which party does Shakespeare favour in the civil war, the Republicans or the monarchists? Which leader does he like best, Caesar or Brutus? Which social class does he esteem, which does he despise, the aristocrats or the commoners? Shakespeare feels human sympathy for all his characters and great antipathy for the mimetic process that turns them all into equivalent doubles.

Political answers are one of the ways in which our insatiable appetite for differences satisfies itself. All differentialism, prestructuralist, structuralist, or poststructuralist, is equally unable to grasp the most fundamental aspect of Shakespearean dramaturgy: conflictual undifferentiation. We can see this in the fact that the most opposite political views can be defended with equal plausibility and implausibility. The case for a Shakespeare sympathetic to the Republic and hostile to Caesar is just as convincing, or unconvincing, as the case for the reverse political view.

Undecidability is the rule in Shakespeare as in all great mimetic writers, but it does not stem from some transcendental property of écriture, or from the ‘inexhaustible richness’ of great art; it is great art, no doubt, but carefully nurtured by the writer himself who deals with human situations mimetically.

One of the errors generated by the twentieth-century love affair with politics is the widespread belief that the mob-like propensities of the crowd in Julius Caesar must reflect contempt for the common man, a distressingly ‘conservative’ bias on the part of Shakespeare himself.

His pleasantries about the foul stinking breath of the multitude seem deplorable to our democratic prudishness, but this sentiment had not yet been invented circa 1600. The mob-like propensities of the plebeians are even less significant because all social classes are similarly affected, not only in Julius Caesar, but in the other Roman plays and in all crises of Degree, really, Ligarius and Casca, two aristocrats, are no less prone to irrational violence than the idle workers in the first lines of the play.

The crisis turns not only the lower classes into a mob but the aristocrats as well, via the conspiracy, or via their degrading idolatry of Caesar. Our preoccupation with class struggle distorts our appreciation not only of Shakespeare but of tragic literature in general. Our virtuous defenders of the proletariat see only the symptoms that affect their protégés.

Marxism confuses tragic undifferentiation with a vain striving for political neutrality. If Shakespeare does not lean in one direction, he must necessarily lean in the other, even if he pretends that he does not. So goes the reasoning. According to this view, politics is so intrinsically absorbing, even the politics of fifteen hundred years ago, that not even Shakespeare can be even-handed in his treatment of it; his apparent impartiality is only a devious way of playing politics.

Shakespeare does not try to be ‘impartial’. We must not see the practical equivalence of all parties in conflict as a hard-won victory of ‘detachment’ over ‘prejudice’, as the heroic triumph of ‘objectivity’ over ‘subjectivity’, or as some other feat of epistemological asceticism that historians of all stripes should either emulate or denounce as a mystification.

Mimetic reciprocity is the structure of human relations for Shakespeare, and his dramatisation of it is no painstaking obligation, but his intellectual and aesthetic delight. In his approach to a great historical quarrel, the objects in dispute, momentous as they seem to us, interest him much less than mimetic rivalry and its undifferentiating effects.

Like ‘true love’ in the comedies, politics in Julius Caesar is always a direct or indirect reflection of what is taking place on some mimetic chessboard. Caesar's politics of imperial reconciliation are a move on this chessboard, and so is Brutus' defence of republicanism. Even the poetry of Shakespeare is inseparable from this undifferentiation, which tends to confound contraries, as Shakespeare would say, and to generate countless metaphors and other figures of speech.

I do not want to imply that political questioning is always out of place in Shakespeare. Until the mimetic logic that erases differences is established, it is premature; after this logic is in place, to inquire about the political significance of the logic itself is not only legitimate but imperative.

The perpetual ‘plague on both your houses’ in Shakespeare must not be void of political significance. When I read Julius Caesar I see no utopian temptation, but I also see an author more nauseated with the aristocratic policies of his time than critics usually believe. I see more satire than most critics perceive. I see an anti-political stance in Shakespeare that suggests a rather sardonic view of history. On political subjects, he reminds me of two French thinkers who are themselves closer to one another than it appears, Montaigne and Pascal. But Shakespeare's mimetic vision, which is artistic form as well as intellectual insight, always takes precedence over other considerations.

Charles Isherwood (review date 28 August-3 September 2000)

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SOURCE: Isherwood, Charles. “Public's Julius Caesar Squanders Wright Stuff.” Variety 380, no. 2 (28 August-3 September 2000): 48, 56.

[In the following review, Isherwood offers a mixed appraisal of Julius Caesar as directed by Barry Edelstein. Isherwood comments that the production suffered from a failure to create a sense of gravity, and contends that Jeffrey Wright's praiseworthy performance of Marc Antony was the only redeemable aspect of the production.]

If Al Gore possessed a mere fraction of the oratorical charisma of the young actor Jeffrey Wright he might easily have KO'd George W. in the battle of the big speeches. Delivering one of Shakespeare's most celebrated monologues, Mark Antony's eulogy for his murdered leader (“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears …”), Wright instantly ignites the Public theater's otherwise tepid new production of Julius Caesar, the Bard's hot-blooded examination of political skullduggery in ancient Rome.

Endowed with a rich, resonant baritone and the intelligence and wit to wield it as a powerfully seductive tool, Wright is brilliantly cast as the wily Antony. Julius Caesar, you'll recall, makes an ignominiously early exit from the play to which he lends his name. He's slain by a cranky corps of conspirators led by the noble Brutus (Jamey Sheridan) and the ignoble Cassius (Dennis Boutsikaris), who then generously grant Caesar's loyal soldier Antony the right to address the public at JC's funeral.

Bad move, boys—particularly when Antony is embodied by the suave, sexy and casually magnetic Wright, who turns Antony's exhortation to the famously fickle Roman citizenry into a fiery tour de force. He delivers Shakespeare's verse with the rousing rhythms of a Baptist preacher on a holy-rolling high (note particularly Antony's use of that powerful rhetorical tool of repetition, ever popular in pulpits), or a jazz instrumentalist riffing ecstatically on a well-worn melody. It's as if Orson Welles descended upon a poetry slam, and it's thrilling. The lights on the stage seem to blaze brighter, the ambient noise in the outdoor amphitheater subsides into a rapt hush, and you'd swear Wright didn't need that clumsy mechanical contraption to levitate above the crowd; he might be soaring aloft on the power of his own rhetorical gifts.

Unfortunately, after handily rousing the Romans to a homicidal frenzy of vengeance, and the audience to a fervent burst of applause, Wright must come back to earth. So, accordingly, does Barry Edelstein's lackluster production, which quickly returns to the shambling pace that preceded Antony's electrifying arrival.

Although it has a juicy, blood-spattered plotline and more than its share of familiar quotations (among them “The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves …” and of course “Et tu, Brute?”), Julius Caesar is not among Shakespeare's most esteemed plays. Its focus is divided among the psychologies of several key characters, and Shakespeare's attitude toward its bloody events remains mysterious. But precisely because it seems to lack a powerful central vision, the play offers wide scope for interpretation. Is Caesar truly a dangerous tyrant, or merely a noble leader in ailing, self-obsessed decline? Is Brutus the “noble Roman” dedicated to republican ideals or a delusional figure who projects his own ambition onto his leader? Shakespeare's contempt for the easily aroused passions of the mob is clear enough, but is Antony tainted by his eager manipulation of these base impulses?

For the most part, Edelstein and his actors don't supply very compelling answers to any such questions. Most crucially lacking in this production is a sense of gravity, a feeling that the destinies of great men and a turning point in the history of a great civilization are being thoughtfully and urgently examined.

With vaguely contemporary trappings—graffiti smeared on a wall here, black jackboots there, latterday ironical inflections emphasized throughout—the idea seems to be to cut play and players down to our own size. Aside from Wright's mesmerizing Antony—and he, in any case, exerts a powerfully contemporary allure rather than an ageless one—none of the performances have the dramatic stature these famous historical figures warrant. They're more like a bunch of squabbling schoolboys fighting over a piece of turf, puny figures whose conflicts hardly seem to justify the thunderous soundscape supplied by Ken Travis and the ominous Middle Eastern music of John Gromada. (They are, however, all too at home in Angela Wendt's unattractive mishmash of classical and contemporary martial gear.)

Narelle Sissons' blood-soaked stage suggests that Edelstein takes the view that Shakespeare's Caesar was truly an evil force, but David McCallum plays the great warrior as a petulant child who stomps about peevishly and brags with preening glee about his powers. His assassination, laboriously staged though it is, thus lacks an element of horror—an irritating fly has merely been swatted. (McCallum's diminishing interpretation is particularly unfortunate, because he does have a natural flair for communicating the verse.)

Boutsikaris' Cassius is not a figure of disturbing, powerful malevolence but a small-minded, whiny villain who might make a viable second career in standup comedy (he gets a lot of laughs mimicking Caesar's cowardice). On that circuit, he might be found competing for guffaws with the mincingly effeminate Casca of Ritchie Coster.

But most detrimental to the production is the bland Brutus of Sheridan. There is nothing flagrantly misguided about Sheridan's performance (which is more than can be said for the shrewish, unsympathetic performance of Colette Kilroy as his wife Portia); it simply doesn't begin to tap the possibilities of this role, a self-divided, ghost-haunted figure who prefigures later, greater tragic figures such as Hamlet and Macbeth. The most emotionally exposed and complex figure in the play is rendered opaquely here.

With a blazing page of historical conflict thus largely reduced here to a series of peevish tiffs, there are few compelling ideas to be found in this Julius Caesar. Nonetheless, Wright's memorable turn does make a persuasive case that he who gives the most consciously manipulative, emotionally seductive speeches is likely to win the heart of the faceless mob. Al Gore might want to take note.

David Barbour (review date October 2000)

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SOURCE: Barbour, David. “Bring Me the Head of David McCallum.” Entertainment Design 34, no. 10 (October 2000): 8-13.

[In the following excerpted review, Barbour describes Barry Edelstein's production of Julius Caesar as fast paced and “sure-handed.”]

New Yorkers, normally a rather blasé lot, were recently surprised to see a flatbed truck heading uptown, bearing a 350 lb. papier-mâché head bearing an uncanny resemblance to the actor David McCallum. It was no mass hallucination; instead, it was a key part of the scenic design of Julius Caesar, as staged by New York Shakespeare Festival at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park.

Julius Caesar, with its plot full of assassinations, speeches, and political maneuvering culminating in open warfare, is always a favorite during an election year, but Barry Edelstein's notably swift and sure-handed production could not have been further from the staged banalities of the Republican and Democratic convention broadcasts. Edelstein set the action in a Rome teetering on the edge of chaos and mob rule, ruled by an aging, intemperate Caesar (McCallum) who is subject to epileptic seizures. All the characters—good, bad, and ambiguous—seem unable to prevent the empire from sliding into bloodshed. Edelstein stressed the element of predestination in the play by having the Soothsayer (who warns Caesar about the Ides of March) a nearly constant onstage presence, presiding impassively over scene after scene of death and destruction.

Fittingly, scenic designer Narelle Sissons says she envisioned Rome as “a decaying city” with a timeless, postmodern quality. The aforementioned head resided at stage right, where it was hung from a 30′-tall crane. At stage left was placed a giant papier-mâché hand and forearm. Between these elements were two stone walls, into which had been carved Roman numerals. The overall look was distressed: The action began with an actor painting Caesar's name on a wall in blood-red paint, but there were bloodstains on the walls as well. Certain fingers on the papier-mâché hand had been broken and reset. There were burn marks and stains everywhere.

This approach served a dual purpose. First, it helped establish the play's initial situation. “Caesar's been away from Rome, winning the war against Pompey,” Sissons says. “Rome is in need of reconstruction.” Also, the urban decay, the graffiti, and the onstage crane all help link Shakespeare's Rome with modern-day New York—a place where violence and political chicanery are not entirely unknown.

Furthermore, the scenic design played a part in many key dramatic moments. Caesar's head was prominently displayed, hanging from the crane in the opening scenes, then was transferred to a more extreme stage-right position; after his murder, it was doused with blood. A square-shaped piece of the stage deck rose in the air, thanks to a scissors lift, to provide a lofty spot for Brutus' and Marc Antony's funeral orations. A catwalk on the top of the walls provided an effective spot for several scenes, including a fateful appearance by Brutus' wife Portia. During the intermission, the walls were stripped away, leaving bare scaffolding for the battle scenes of Act II. This strategy also opened up the playing space enormously and gave lighting designer Donald Holder a battery of new positions, which he seized to create stunningly effective backlight for the approach of clashing armies.

The head and hand pieces were built on the stage of the Newman Theatre, at New York Shakespeare Festival's downtown venue, the Joseph Papp Public Theatre. Dan Dalrymple, a member of the theatre's technical staff, has experience in fabricating floats for the annual Mardi Gras festivities in New Orleans, and the Julius Caesar pieces were built in much the same way. “Each piece took about two and a half weeks,” he says, adding that two to three people worked on each. To create the head, he and his team worked from photos of David McCallum; the actor also had a bust of himself, from another project, which came in handy here, as a visual inspiration. The hand was based on Dalrymple's own hand. Both pieces were weatherproofed using an elastomeric roof coating.

Another key effect involved 8′-tall shots of flame that issued from the stage deck at certain dramatic moments, a magical touch that reflects Sissons' belief that Julius Caesar, with its soothsayer, prophecies, and oracular dreams, is at least as much about spirituality as politics. The fire effect was created by Ian O'Connor, a Los Angeles-based specialist who has worked before at New York Shakespeare Festival.

Aside from the head and arm pieces, the rest of the scenery, most notably the crane, was fabricated by Entolo, the scenic division of Production Resource Group. Entolo also supplied the Stage Command System, which allowed the crane to move. Other scenic personnel included assistant designer Troy Hourie; scenic artists Justin Morgan Field, Bethany Ann McDonald, Anne McKilligan, Keaton Morris-Stan, and Reeves Morris-Stan. The theatre's carpentry crew is headed by Thomas Keating and Luis Torres. The rest of the creative team included costume designer Angela Wendt and sound designer Ken Travis.

When asked about the future of the papier-mâché pieces after the production's limited run, Dalrymple jokes, “They're for sale.” So if anyone out there knows a really, really big David McCallum fan, the perfect Christmas present is now available. …

Barbara L. Parker (essay date spring 1995)

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SOURCE: Parker, Barbara L. “The Whore of Babylon and Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 35 (spring 1995): 251-69.

[In the following essay, Parker suggests that Julius Caesar may be read as a satire of Papal Rome, in which Caesar represents the Antichrist.]

Julius Caesar is an odd mix of elements. It contains no apparent love interest and, with two exceptions, is populated wholly by men. Its monolithic maleness encompasses the minor characters as well as the major ones, from the Cobbler to the Poets to, it seems, the Romans themselves: in his oration, Antony seven times refers to his auditors as “men” or “countrymen” (women he conspicuously ignores), and Brutus neglects “shows of love” to “other men.” Despite this gender imbalance, the play contains pervasive sexual overtones. It also, as critics have noted, contains numerous religious references, including allusions to the life of Christ.1 These three seemingly disparate threads—of maleness, of sexuality, and of religion—are in fact integrally allied. Together they form the basis for the subtextual theme of the play.

Rome had a specific meaning in Shakespeare's England. While it could be seen as a great ancient city whose ruinous fall inspired awe, it was primarily viewed as “the corrupt popish Babylon of Foxe's martyrology,”2 the seat of the Catholic Antichrist, whose ostensibly heretical doctrine was tantamount to spiritual whoredom. The consequent identification of Rome with the Whore of Babylon was thus a Protestant commonplace, a staple not only of the Geneva glosses but of the sermons and tracts of the day.3 In John Bale's representative words, “No marvel … (Rome) be … called a great whore. For nowhere were ever yet seen so many idol-worshippings, … so many superstitious sects, so many errors in hypocrisy, so many false prophets, and so many prodigious kinds of filthiness, no, not in Sodom itself.”4 Sexual perversion—licentiousness, incest, and especially sodomy—accordingly became the Church's defining attribute, the Church's putative sodomitical bent following logically from its mandated celibacy. As Bale explains:

(Pope Gregory VII) was the first (that supreme hypocrite) who by excommunications deprived the ministers of the church of a wife and filled the world with innumerable paederasts. Thus the … Roman church has as a result through perverted love and cult of idols become Sodomitical.5

The identification of Rome with sexual perversion was a staple of lay literature as well. The humanist Joseph Scaliger locates “all licentiousness and particularly sodomy in Popish Italy,”6 John Marston's persona exhorts “falsed … Patriotes” studying in Catholic seminaries abroad to leave their “Sodome vilanie” where they found it, and Spenser's Duessa embodies not simply whorishness but genital deformity.7 The Italianate settings of many Jacobean plays—Othello, Volpone, and The Duchess of Malfi, for example—continue the Reformation image of Italy, conveying “a steamy atmosphere of sexual corruption,” and often having as a stock villain the hypocritical cardinal or pope.8 The Protestant view is encapsulated by Thomas Rogers: “If ye spell Roma backward … ye shall find it to be Amor: love in this prodigious (i.e., unnatural) kind,” a sentiment he punctuates with some verse:

At Rome the harlot hath a better life,
Than she that is a Roman's wife.(9)

It is this concept—prodigious or unnatural love—which, I will argue, constitutes the subtextual theme of the play. Conveyed primarily through a pervasive pattern of sexual puns, this theme is part of a larger satire on papal Rome, with Caesar the parodic savior or Antichrist.10

The theme is instated even before commencement of the dialogue, by means of the word “Commoners” (I.i.s.d.), which denotes both “plebeians” and “whores.”11 In response to Marullus's query, the Cobbler states that he is a workman (a male copulator) who, though he lives by “the awl” (the phallus), disclaims meddling (sexual intercourse) with matters of the tradesman (brothelkeeper or bawd) and with “women's matters” (female pudenda; sexual intercourse), professing to be merely a “surgeon” (a treater of venereal disease) of “bad soles” (depraved souls) (I.i.5-22). Subtly corroborating the Cobbler's eschewal of “women's matters” while belying his disclaimer of bawd is the coterie of “men” he leads “about the streets,” thereby “to get (him) self into more work” (copulation) (I.i.28-30). Further suggesting the commoners' “whoredom” is their fickleness: they have just shifted their affection from Pompey to Caesar, just as they will later shift it from Caesar to Brutus and from Brutus back to Caesar. What is subtextually depicted, therefore, is a society of male harlots or “feminized” men, who mirror in small the Roman state. As Cassius observes, “But, woe the while! our fathers' minds are dead, / And we are govern'd with our mothers' spirits” (I.iii.82-3).

The opening scene is immediately followed by the entrance of Caesar, who supremely embodies Rome's sexual malaise while augmenting its ramifications. Caesar, we learn, is “prodigious grown” (I.iii.77), a phallic pun implying a huge and sustained erection and linking him to the prodigious or unnatural love Bale and Rogers describe. This meaning is substantiated by the “prodigies” marking the storm, “portentous things” that have changed their ordained “faculties” and “natures” to “monstrous quality,” boding “some monstrous state” (I.iii.28, 31, 66-71); and further substantiated by “monstrous,” a synonym for sexually perverse.12 “State” denotes both condition and body politic, both Caesar and Rome, the realm Platonically mirroring its putative head;13 and Caesar, to quote Cassius, is “Most like this dreadful night” (I.iii.73).

Further linking Caesar to Rome's sexual malaise is his “femaleness,” an absence of virility suggested by his childlessness and by the frailty and infirmities that belie his phallic hugeness and render him “feeble” as “a sick girl” (I.ii.127-8).14 These infirmities include his “falling sickness,” which denotes both epilepsy and prostitution (the phrase puns on the disease-ridden “falling trade,” as prostitution was termed)15, and further allies him with the commoners of the preceding scene. So does his sexual bent: “Let me have men about me that are fat,” he intones, adding, in a further phallic pun: “Sleek-headed men” (I.ii.189-90). Caesar, therefore, similarly eschews “women's matters,” an eschewal directly responsible for Calphurnia's barrenness—a further symbol of the warped sexuality afflicting Rome.

Caesar's marital frigidity is affirmed in his dialogue with Decius, which pointedly juxtaposes that with Calphurnia. The conspirators' chief concern is “Whether Caesar will come … to-day” (II.i.194), a double entendre repeated six times in the first fifteen lines of dialogue between Decius and Caesar. Caesar, however, declines to “come,” not, he insists, because he “cannot” or “dare not” but because he “will not” (II.ii.62-4). Caesar qualifies this refusal with a further sequence of sexual puns that, together with Decius's explication of Calphurnia's dream, reveal the full significance of Caesar's “femaleness.” Caesar claims that the cause of his refusal is in his “will” (penis) and that this reason should “satisfy” (sexually gratify) the Senate. However, for Decius's “private (genital) satisfaction,” and because, as he assures Decius, “I love you,” he reveals Calphurnia's dream of his statue, “Which like a fountain with an hundred spouts / Did run pure blood” (II.ii.71-8). The fountain, as Gail Paster points out, “is conventionally associated with the female sexual organs,” and a flowing fountain denotes defloration16—here, rape, a sense punningly substantiated by the “spoil” Caesar's “hunters” will reap (III.i.205-6). The scene culminates in Decius's incredible vision of the lactating Caesar, a male “mother” suckling all of Rome:

Your statue spouting blood in many pipes …
Signifies that from you great Rome shall suck
Reviving blood, and that great men shall press
For tinctures, stains, relics, and cognizance.


To quote Paster, “(I)mages … of a lactating Christ were familiar in late-medieval Christian worship. The idea took varying forms: the body of the church, itself depicted symbolically as ecclesia lactans, was identified with the body of Christ; or Christ's nurturing flesh was identified with nurturing female flesh; or the bodily (Crucifixion) wound … was depicted near the breast in order to suggest a bleeding nipple.” All these images, furthermore, were related “to the self-sacrificial emblem … (of) the mother pelican who, Christlike, pecks her own breast to feed her young” with her blood.17 Caesar thus becomes a grotesque parody of the redeeming Christ, a “savior” whose blood will in fact “revive” Rome by means of his lineal “resurrection”—in symbolic terms, by means of the assured continuance of the Roman Church. Again, we may note, only men will “press” (sexually bear down on) Caesar, “(in return) for” such favors as “relics” and “cognizance.” The scene concludes with Decius averring his “dear dear love” for Caesar (II.ii.102), and Caesar departing with the man who has symbolically seduced him away from and supplanted his wife. Compounding the irony are the love declarations the two have exchanged, in contrast to the complete absence of such language between Caesar and Calphurnia.

Caesar's phallic enormity is at once the root of Cassius's jealousy (“Such men as he be never at heart's ease / Whiles they behold a greater than themselves” (I.ii.205-6)) and of Caesar's political power. “Common suitors” (II.iv.35; the phrase applies equally to the patricians), attracted by his hugeness, perpetually throng around him, jockeying for his favor in a ceaseless ritual of Petrarchan adulation. The journey to the Capitol is accordingly construed as a series of rival solicitations, all of which Caesar, true to his vow of sexual abstinence, rejects. The first is that of Artemidorus:

Here will I stand (maintain an erection) till Caesar pass along,
And as a suitor (wooer) will I give him this.

The missive is signed “Thy lover, Artemidorus” (II.iii.7-10).18 Caesar, however, insists that “What touches (erotically caresses) us ourself shall be last serv'd” (III.i.8), a statement presaging his posthumous union with the mob. He likewise declines the “suits” of Trebonius (III.i.4-5), Metellus Cimber (III.i.33-5), Brutus (III.i.52-4; note also II.iv.42-3), and Cassius (III.i.55-7), all conceived in Petrarchan terms: Brutus kisses Caesar's hand and Metellus proffers “curtsies” and “sweet words” (III.i.42-3), Metellus, Cassius, and Brutus each bowing or kneeling to Caesar in a show of abject adoration (III.i.36, 56, 75). Caesar, however, remains the adamantly chaste and imperious beloved, proclaiming his immunity to the flattery, “fawning,” and “couchings” that “melteth fools” (III.i.36-43). He concludes by reiterating his immovability—subtextually, his vow not to “come”: not without cause will he “be satisfied” (III.i.47-8). The irony, of course, is that Caesar, only moments earlier, had indeed been “mov'd,” by Decius's flattery, to break his promise to Calphurnia, moreover deserting his wife for his seducer; and it is this inconstancy that both leads to his death and clinches his moral affinity with the “fools” he contemns.

Antony is the agent of Caesar's regeneration, a role foreshadowed by a cluster of puns that convey a formidable sexual potency. Antony is “gamesome,” or sexually vigorous, a sense corroborated by Brutus's concession that he “lack(s) some part / Of that quick spirit that is in Antony” (I.ii.27-8). “Spirit” was a synonym for semen, and “quick” signifies both living (i.e., fertile) and rapidly ejaculatory. The idea of “quickness” is augmented by “run,” “speed,” and “chase” (I.ii.4-8) and physically manifested in Antony's participation in the race, itself a fertility ritual. Antony's robust virility sets him apart from Rome's womanish men, rendering him singularly capable of rectifying Caesar's heirlessness and of thus effecting the “rebirth” or lineal regeneration that will negate Caesar's death and assure his revenge.

Antony's curing of Caesar's heirlessness occurs, ironically, at the funeral, the play's sexual climax and one of the most ingenious seduction scenes in literature. The action subtextually replicates all the stages of the sex act, from arousal to coitus to orgasm. This last stage is attended by the burning of Rome—by the flames emblematic of sexual frenzy—and marks the play's structural climax as well. Thereafter, the fire imagery all but vanishes, reflecting the detumescence characterizing the second half of the play.

Initiating the sequence of double entendres is the mob's chant, “(L)et us be satisfied” (III.ii.1). Brutus, naively appealing to the mob's “wisdom,” singularly fails in this regard, notwithstanding his request that they “awake” their “senses” (III.ii.16-7). Their sensual awakening will be left to Antony, whose goal—their coitus with Caesar—will entail seducing them from Brutus back to Caesar and rousing them to the requisite sexual pitch. Antony begins, therefore, with some mild titillation: he reminds them of their former “love” for Caesar (III.ii.104). He then casually mentions Caesar's will, thereby rhetorically linking it to the will for which Caesar refused to “come,” simultaneously eroticizing Caesar in language rendering the two wills synonymous. “Testament” puns allusively on “testes”—and it is Caesar's “testament” that will regenerate Rome by creating “heirs” to perpetuate his legacy. Antony states:

Let but the commons hear this testament, …
And they would go and kiss dead Caesar's wounds (vaginal orifices),
And dip their napkins in his sacred blood,
Yea, beg a hair of him for memory,
And, dying (sexually climaxing), mention it within their wills,
Bequeathing it as a rich legacy
Unto their issue.


Antony's speech waxes progressively more erotic; eventually, he transmutes the corpse itself into a phallus and the crowd into the receiving agent:

You will compel me then to read the will?
Then make a ring about the corpse of Caesar,
And let me show you him that made the will …
4. Pleb.
A ring! Stand round.


Orgasm, however—the fertilization that will make possible Caesar's rebirth—is not yet assured. Antony, therefore, moves to the body itself, focusing on Caesar's “mantle” in rhetoric that emphasizes Caesar's femaleness. He does this, as Paster states, by refiguring Caesar's body as a discursive site of desire and stressing his female vulnerability. Caesar's blood “responds to Brutus as to an unkind suitor, with a rather adolescent, even girlish naiveté.”19 As Brutus

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;
For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar's angel.


“Angel” was a Petrarchan term of endearment as well as a term for a catamite or whore. That Shakespeare is invoking both senses appears from Brutus's reference to Caesar as “my best lover” (III.ii.46), and from the image of Caesar dying of a broken heart when he sees Brutus “stab” (III.ii.186)—a further phallic pun. The “rents” the daggers inflict and the resulting rush of blood out of Caesar's “doors” transmute the assassination into the rape prefigured in Calphurnia's dream.

Antony now proceeds to the seduction's finale: the removal of the mantle to reveal the naked body itself (III.ii.199). Again double entendres fuse with blatant eroticism: denying his intent “to steal away” their “hearts” (III.ii.218), he rivets the mob's gaze directly on the wounds emblematic of vaginal orifices, “mouths” inviting the insertion of “tongue(s)” (note his earlier image of “wounds” that “ope their ruby lips, / To beg … my tongue” (III.i.259-61)):

I tell you that which you yourselves do know,
Show you sweet Caesar's wounds, poor poor dumb mouths,
And bid them speak for me. But were I Brutus,
And Brutus Antony, there were an Antony
Would ruffle up your spirits (semen), and put a tongue
In every wound of Caesar that should move
The stones of Rome to rise (become erect) and mutiny (sexually climax).
We'll mutiny …
3. Pleb.
Away then! Come.


The speech concludes with the coup de grace, the reading of Caesar's will:

Moreover, he hath left you all his walks,
His private arbours, and new-planted orchards,
On this side Tiber; he hath left them you,
And to your heirs for ever: common pleasures,
To walk abroad and recreate yourselves.
Here was a Caesar! when comes such another?
1. Pleb.
Never, never! Come, away, away!


Orgasm—the “flood of mutiny” Antony seeks (III.ii.213)—is now achieved, symbolically attended by the firing of Rome by brands that are themselves phallic symbols: “Come, brands, ho! firebrands! … burn all!” (III.iii.35-6). Stimulated by the crowd's paroxysmal surging (commencing at III.ii.169-70), Caesar also “comes” (III.ii.254), attaining the orgasm his abstinence presaged: “The cause is in my will: I will not come” (II.ii.71). The scene, a subtextual depiction of mass necrophilia, is, appropriately, the play's sexual and structural climax and its crowning example of prodigious love.20

The events are heavy with religious parody. The Catholic use of charms or “enchantments” (holy water, for instance) to hallow or transform is succinctly suggested by Caesar's belief that Antony's touching of Calphurnia during his “holy chase” will magically exorcise her “sterile curse” (I.ii.8-9; the words “holy” and “curse” should be carefully noted in this regard). The adoration of relics, deemed idolatrous by Protestants, is also succinctly glanced at, in Decius's explication of the bleeding statue Calphurnia has dreamed: “men” will “press” Caesar for “relics” (II.ii.88-9). The prophecy is augmented in Antony's speech to the mob, as Antony envisions them begging “a hair of (Caesar) for memory” and dipping “their napkins in his sacred blood” (III.ii.135-6). These lines additionally allude to the Catholic practice of dipping cloths in the blood of martyrs. To quote A. O. Meyer, “Great as was the care taken to prevent people showing reverence to the relics of the martyrs, or dipping cloths in their blood, all was in vain. Relics were secured after every execution, and sometimes it was the executioner himself who sold to catholics the martyrs' bloodstained garments.”21 Caesarworship, Shakespeare seems to imply, clearly resembles Roman Catholic worship.

The funeral's ultimate significance, however, resides in the will. The “common pleasures” Caesar bequeaths out of “love” to Rome (III.ii.143) will insure the parodic equivalent of eternal life, a perpetual succession of sons or “heirs” made possible by Caesar's “testament,” which gives “To every several man” and his “heirs for ever” the means to “re(-)create (them) selves” (III.ii.244-53). The word “common” should again be noted, as should the fact that Caesar's “pleasures” are relegated to men. The will thus becomes a monstrous parody of Christ's testament, similarly conferred out of love, Caesar's “walks,” “arbors,” and “orchards” constituting the Heavenly City the pure will inherit, and the mob's union with Caesar suggesting Christ's marriage with the spiritually elect.

Brutus is Caesar's parallel. As purger of Rome, he becomes Rome's new savior, and “king” of a band of followers that are the moral correlative of the mob. An affiliation with the papacy is punningly suggested at the outset, by means of the ancestor whose name he bears and whose role he tacitly assumes:

There was a Brutus once that would have brook'd
Th' eternal devil (the pope) to keep his state in Rome
As easily as a king.


The parallel between Caesar and Brutus lies chiefly, however, in their sexual affinity, which makes Brutus Caesar's fitting successor as Rome's “savior.” This affinity resides in a prudish preoccupation with “honor”—subtextually, with preserving his chastity—that renders him similarly womanish, courted by men and undergoing a kindred seduction. It is to honor that Cassius must accordingly appeal if he is successfully to woo Brutus away from his “best lover” Caesar (III.ii.46). He therefore begins “modestly” (I.ii.68), the better to establish his own sexual integrity, disclaiming (like Caesar) any “common” proclivities—here any promiscuity—of which Brutus need be “jealous”:

And be not jealous on me, gentle Brutus:
Were I a common laughter (lover), or did use.
To stale with ordinary oaths my love
To every new protester; if you know
That I do fawn on men and hug them hard, …
then hold me dangerous.


Again, the “love” (including hugging) is confined to men. Brutus, preoccupied with Caesar's growing power, has hitherto been sexually quiescent, neglecting his “shows of love to other men” (I.ii.46). That Cassius has succeeded in igniting the spark that will consume Rome is denoted by the ensuing exchange:

That you do love me, I am nothing jealous; …
I am glad
That my weak words have struck but thus much show
Of fire from Brutus.


After the conspirators arrive, Brutus asks them to “Give me your hands all over, one by one” (II.i.112). The men then exchange pledges of “honesty” (II.i.127)—subtextually, vows of chastity or sexual fidelity. The ritual recalls the Anglican marriage service, in which mutual pledges of fidelity are likewise solemnized by the joining of hands:

Forasmuch as.N. and.N. have consented together in holywedlock, and have witnessed the same before God and this company, and thereto have … pledged their troth, either toother, and have declared the same … by joining of hands: I pronounce that they be man and wife together.23.

The immediately following scene with Portia reinforces the pact's “marital” import. Like the companion exchange between Caesar and Calphurnia, the scene inversely parallels the preceding one. Again, the word “love” is conspicuously absent. Portia, moreover, twice accuses Brutus of “steal(ing) out of his wholesome bed” (II.i.264, 238), punningly underscoring his perverse new love alliance and the “idle bed” each man keeps at home (II.i.117). In contrast to his thrice-repeated welcome to the conspirators and the “wedding” ritual that caps it, Brutus dismisses Portia with “an angry wafture of (his) hand,” finalizing the rejection with the last words he ever speaks to her in the play: “Leave me with haste” (II.i.246-7, 309). The rejection bodes the dissolution of the marital bond, the repudiation of “that great vow / Which did incorporate and make us one” (II.i.272-3). This wording, as Kaula points out, invokes

a Christian rather than classical conception of marriage, based on Genesis 2:24 and St. Paul's homily on marriage in Ephesians 5: “and they twaine shalbe one flesh.” The Anglican Marriage Service explains the larger symbolic meaning of marriage when, paraphrasing St. Paul, it speaks of it as “signifying … the mystical union … betwixt Christ and his Church,” while the word “incorporate” occurs in the Communion Service: “that we be very members incorporate in thy mystical body.”24

Portia's words recall Cassius's statement that Casca is “one incorporate / To our attempts” (I.iii.135-6) and Antony's comment that Brutus “made one” of the conspirators (V.v.72), both punning allusions to the “marriage” pact which has negated and supplanted that with Portia.

Wounded by his remoteness, Portia points out that “the bond of marriage” obligates Brutus to reveal his “secrets” (privities)—to

unfold (undress) to me, your self, your half,
Why you are heavy, and what men to-night
Have had resort to (sexual intimacy with) you.


She promises to “bear” these secrets with “constancy” (faithfulness, fidelity), a vow she keeps despite the anguish it entails. The speech recalls the “bond” of “secret Romans” Brutus lauds in his “marriage” pact with the conspirators (II.i.124-5), and the “constancy” he enjoins at II.i.227, both nullified by the infidelity of one or more partners; for we know from III.i.13-22 that someone has divulged their “secret.” The “sick offence” Brutus harbors (II.i.268) thus parallels Caesar's; as Portia declares, in a possible allusion to the rhymed adage Rogers enunciates above, “Portia is Brutus' harlot, not his wife” (II.i.287). The fact that talkativeness (here, the leaking of the secret) was a female attribute25 further suggests the men's womanishness. Portia's silence, in contrast (II.iv.6-9)—her fidelity to her oath and to her bond—renders her the “male” in the marriage: as she herself observes, she has “a woman's might” but “a man's mind” (II.iv.8).26

The last man to arrive at Brutus's is Ligarius. “Feeble” of “tongue” (phallus) and wearing a “kerchief,” he is another womanish or “sick man” (II.i.310-5), whom the new Antichrist forthwith heals in a parody of raising Lazarus, but in sexual terms that also burlesque the Catholic rituals of exorcism and conjuration: “Like an exorcist” Brutus “conjur (es) up” (magically raises) his “mortified spirit” (dead semen) (II.i.323-4).27 That the cured man thereupon joins the band of “lovers” is indicated by the sexual innuendo and the courtly love exploits he vows:

Now bid me run (sexually climax),
And I will strive with things impossible, …
And with a heart new-fir'd I follow you,
To do I know not what; but it sufficeth
That Brutus leads me on.


The group marriage is now complete: Brutus calls his newest partner “my Caius” and prepares to “unfold” to him his secret.

Brutus's funeral oration further undercuts his vaunted “honesty,” revealing him to be, like Caesar, a “common” or mass “lover”: he calls the mob “lovers” and “countrymen” (cuntrymen), asking that they “respect” his “honour” even as he concedes killing his “best lover” because he “loved Rome more” (III.ii.13-23, 46). Significantly, the word “love” or a variant occurs eight times in this brief speech, in contrast to its total absence from his dialogue with Portia. The Cinna episode, which ends the first structural segment of the play, provides an ironic commentary on all that has transpired:

4. Pleb.
Are you a married man or a bachelor? …
… wisely I say, I am a bachelor.
2. Pleb.
That's as much as to say they are fools that marry.


The second part of the play attests a general detumescence. Supplanting the fire imagery emblematic of sexual frenzy are images of coldness and death: Cassius is “A hot friend cooling” (IV.ii.19); Caesar's ghost makes Brutus's “blood cold” (IV.iii.279); and “The sun of Rome is set” (V.iii.63), heralding the “night” that will soon close Brutus's eyes (V.v.41). The cooling extends to the conspirators, whose fragmentation further renders their “bond” a mockery. This fragmentation is exampled in the relationship of the two remaining “lovers,” and is signaled by the coolness with which Cassius greets Brutus's envoy: though “courteous,” the reception lacks intimacy, the “familiar instances” that “he hath us'd of old” (IV.ii.16-8). The breach typifies the diseased love and inconstancy that mark the play. As Brutus states—ironically, in light of the “enforced ceremony” his own “love” pact entailed:

Thou hast describ'd
A hot friend cooling. Ever note, Lucilius,
When love begins to sicken and decay
It useth an enforced ceremony.


The zealous partners have degenerated into squabbling lovers: Cassius, grown increasingly womanish, has become the jealous beloved, petulantly taxing Brutus with loving Caesar more “Than ever thou lov'dst Cassius” (IV.iii.106) and proffering his “naked breast” and his “dagger” (phallus) to prove his devotion to the man who, he claims, has broken his heart (IV.iii.99-100, 84). Later, ostensibly reconciled, the two drink to their “love” (IV.iii.161). The gesture, however, cloaks “a serious flaw in the relationship” (see V.i.74-6) and bodes the eternal schism (“this parting was well made” (V.i.119)) signaled by their “everlasting farewell” (V.i.116).28 The parting, like Brutus's from Portia, seals the dissolution of the “marital” bond. Compounding the irony is the fact that nothing has changed: Cassius remains an “underling” (the pun (I.ii.139) reinforces his femaleness), subject to a tyrant as imperious and as absolute as Caesar.29.

As Brutus's “marriage” with the conspirators supplants that with Portia, so a new “marriage” supplants that with the conspirators. Fastidiously proper to the bitter end, Brutus awards Strato the privilege of killing him because

Thou art a fellow of a good respect;
Thy life hath had some smatch of honour in it.


With characteristic modesty (or, more accurately, prudery), he asks Strato to “Hold then my sword (phallus), and turn away thy face, / While I do run (sexually climax) upon it” (V.v.47-8). The pact, which is prefaced by a punning injunction of constancy (“I prithee, Strato, stay thou by thy lord” (line 44)), is solemnized by the joining of hands. Predictably, Brutus dies eulogizing not his country (or his wife) but his “lovers”:

My heart doth joy that yet in all my life
I found no man but he was true to me.


In the play, then, Caesar is the usurping Antichrist, the parodic savoir of Babylonian Rome, whose spiritual fornication he embodies. The perversion afflicts every level of society, the patriciate morally paralleling the commons, and the state thus Platonically mirroring the ethos of its putative head.

In accordance with its underlying theme of prodigious love, the play details a subtextual series of marriages, seductions, and divorcements, all indicative of the whorish and unnatural love Rome embodies. Brutus's seduction by Cassius parallels Caesar's by Decius. Deriving from the same blindness and inconstancy that characterize the mob, the seductions lead in both cases to marital “infidelity” and schism. The pattern of seductions also includes Antony's seduction of the plebeians. Virtually all the play's characters—including Portia—emerge as whores. Gender inversion, a further facet of prodigious love, is manifested in Rome's “commonalty” of male harlots as well as in the women: Calphurnia is barren and Portia is the “male” in the marriage. The motif culminates in the mob's coitus with Caesar's corpse, the union incurring a perpetual succession of “sons” or heirs who will continue Caesar's legacy. The subtext is reinforced by the play's structure, with the sexual and structural climaxes occurring simultaneously.

That Shakespeare is operating within an established tradition—one fusing sexual and religious satire—we have already seen. This tradition, we might note, in effect begins with William Baldwin's translation of Wonderfull Newes of the Death of Paule the III (ca. 1552), an antipapal satire that constitutes “the earliest sign of a shift toward the imported standards of Italianate and neoclassical satire that would take hold in England by the end of the century.” Its “phantasmagorical images of perverse sexuality” bring “to life the full animus that Reformation Englishmen felt toward the Vatican” and “approximate the … spiritual fornication of the Roman church.”30 This tradition, in sum, is one “in which the opponent is defamed as a sodomite” and whose texts “are an integral part of a mythology that validated Protestantism in general and the English Church in particular.”31

Julius Caesar is unique only in its sodomitical thrust; Protestant satire permeates the canon. Hugh Richmond has shown, for instance, how Shakespeare manipulates formulas of medieval “papistical” drama in ways calculated to exploit Protestant sentiment: “For example, an important element of the first English tetralogy lies in its elaborate mockery of the miracle plays' celebration of saints' lives.” Thus Joan of Arc, admired in sixteenth-century France, appears there as “a holy prophetess” and a “saint” (I Henry VI I.iv.101, but in England as a “damned sorceress” and a “witch” (III.ii.38). In Richard III (I.ii.8), “Lady Anne explicitly triggers Protestant repudiation of saints and their worship when she anticipates Henry VI's beatification.”32 In Henry V, Henry of course is Catholic; in order therefore to present him as the ideal Christian king, Shakespeare disassociates him from the Church excesses exemplified by the venal and hypocritical prelates and has him deny the salvational efficacy of works. In Romeo and Juliet, the hypocritical friar counsels lying and deceit, his “magic” linking him to the devil and indirectly leading to the lovers' deaths. Love's Labour's Lost satirizes monasticism, as the lords, taking mock-religious vows, retire to their “academe” (I.i.13) and to three years of fleshly mortification. The play centers, however, on what Protestants deemed the Catholic emphasis on justification by works, such justification blasphemously implying that grace could be bought. The idea underlies the lords' hypocrisy as they seek to “buy” the ladies with flattery and gifts. The ladies, deploring these “works” and imposing new ones calculated to prove their suitors' “faith,” are identified with Protestantism. Measure for Measure also satirizes monasticism, Isabella's very name appearing “to suggest Catholicism, perhaps specifically Spanish Catholicism.”33King John censures papal supremacy outright (III.i.75-86). Whether or not the plays reflect Shakespeare's religious views, it seems clear that they were consistent vehicles for Protestant propaganda, that they exploited contemporary theological issues, and that they were addressed to a rampantly nationalistically-Protestant audience.

The role of Octavius remains to be considered. In the play, the rebirth of Caesarism is embodied in Octavius, at once Caesar's spiritual successor and incarnation. The convergence of roles is variously signaled. At I.ii.210, Caesar asks Antony to “Come on my right hand, for this ear is deaf,” a line with no basis in Shakespeare's known sources. Fraught with biblical overtones, the “right hand” reference is a blasphemous allusion to Christ's relationship to the Father.34 As the Geneva Bible makes clear: “By the right hand is signified the autoritie and power, which God giveth his Sonne Christ in making him his lieutenant & governour over his Church.”35 The allusion is reinvoked by Octavius just before his victory: he tells Antony, “Upon the right hand I / Keep thou the left” (V.i.18). The reiteration underscores the men's spiritual kinship and further fuses their characters and roles. By the play's end, a single figure—“another Caesar” (V.i.54)—is again in virtual control of Rome.36

It is, however, their sexual affinity that clinches the fusion, an affinity conveyed by the series of puns informing Octavius's last speech:

All that serv'd Brutus, I will entertain them.
Fellow, wilt thou bestow thy time with me?
Ay, if Messala will prefer me to you.
Do so, good Messala.
How died my master, Strato?
I held the sword, and he did run on it.
Octavius, then take him to follow thee,
That did the latest service to my master.


“To serve” means to confer sexual attention upon, “to entertain” means to caress erotically preparatory to intercourse, “to take” means to assume carnal possession of, and “die” and “run” both signify sexual climax. That Strato held Brutus's “sword” and induced orgasm at his climactic death confirms him as a worthy “follower,” this last pun additionally implying a religious disciple. As Jan H. Blits notes, Octavius takes into service those who served not Rome but Brutus “and who are recommended to him on the basis of their personal devotion.”37 Together with its implied promise of constancy, the “marriage” between Brutus and Strato, like all the preceding “marriages,” is thus rendered a mockery, nullified by Strato's easy switch of allegiance to a new lord who was, moreover, moments earlier, his mortal foe. Thus begins the pattern anew, with another Antichrist firmly ensconced and the Whore duly resuscitated.38 “Time,” in Cassius's final superlative pun, is indeed “come round” (V.iii.23).


  1. Studies noting the play's religious elements include R. E. Spakowski, “Deification and Myth-Making in the Play Julius Caesar,University Review 36, 2 (December 1969): 135-40; David Kaula, ‘“Let Us Be Sacrificers: Religious Motifs in Julius Caesar,ShakS [Shakespeare Studies] 14 (1981): 197-214; Mark Rose, “Conjuring Caesar: Ceremony, History, and Authority in 1599,” ELR [English Literature Renaissance] 19, 3 (Autumn 1989): 291-304; and Gail Kern Paster, “‘In the spirit of men there is no blood’: Blood as Trope of Gender in Julius Caesar,SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly] 40, 3 (Fall 1989): 284-98. Bernard Spivack, Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil: The History of a Metaphor in Relation to His Major Villains (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1958), discusses the play's allegorical and homiletic elements.

  2. D. R. Woolf, The Idea of History in Early Stuart England: Erudition, Ideology, and ‘The Light of Truth from the Accession of James I to the Civil War’ (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1990), p. 171.

  3. See, e.g., at Rev. 14:8; Rev. 17 and 18 passim; and the Argument prefacing Revelation. Scriptural citations refer to The Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the 1560 Edition, introd. Lloyd E. Berry (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1969); in them, I have regularized u, v and i, j and silently expanded abbreviations and deleted italics to enhance readability.

  4. John Bale, The Image of Both Churches, Being an Exposition of the Most Wonderful Book of Revelation …, in Select Works of John Bale, ed. Henry Christmas, Parker Society (Cambridge, 1849), p. 494.

  5. John Bale, Scriptorum illustrium maioris Brytaniae catalogus (Basel, 1600), 1:159; qtd. by Winfried Schleiner, ‘“That Matter Which Ought Not To Be Heard Of: Homophobic Slurs in Renaissance Cultural Politics,” Journal of Homosexuality 26, 4 (1994): 41-75, 58. On the propagandist identification of Popery with sodomy, see also Alan Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England (London: Gay Men's Press, 1982), pp. 19-21.

  6. Schleiner, p. 51.

  7. John Marston, The Scourge of Villanie (1599), ed. G. B. Harrison (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1966), p. 29 (noted by Bruce R. Smith, Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England: A Cultural Poetics (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1991), p. 202); Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene 1.8.46, 48. Further examples are noted by Schleiner, pp. 49-57.

  8. John N. King, English Reformation Literature: The Tudor Origins of the Protestant Tradition (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1982), p. 378.

  9. Thomas Rogers, The Catholic Doctrine of the Church of England, An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles, ed. J. J. S. Perowne, Parker Society (Cambridge, 1854), p. 179. John Jewel, voicing a similar sentiment, states that in Rome there is “little difference between wife and harlot” (A Reply to M. Harding's Answer, in The Works of John Jewel, ed. John Ayre, Parker Society, 4 vols. (Cambridge, 1845-50), 2:707).

  10. Related studies include Jan H. Blits, “Manliness and Friendship in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar,” Interpretation 9, 2-3 (September 1981): 155-67; G. Wilson Knight, “Romantic Friendship,” in Shakespeare and Religion: Essays of Forty Years (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1967), pp. 53-63, both of whom consider the play's theme of friendship (Knight additionally remarks the eroticism charging the play); and Paster, who explores the play's “regendering” motif. Unlike me, Paster, who focuses on the blood imagery, argues that in stabbing Caesar the conspirators “re-mark Caesar's body with femaleness” out of their need “to cause his body … to leak like a woman's” and that such bleeding signifies their overmastering of Caesar (p. 296). Kaula has already demonstrated Shakespeare's association of Caesar with the papacy. As Kaula points out (p. 202), the association was a commonplace among Protestant writers. That the Pope was Antichrist was a further Protestant commonplace, the term “Antichrist” additionally embracing the Roman Church. On the Pope/Antichrist equation, see Christopher Hill, Antichrist in Seventeenth-Century England (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1971), pp. 1-33.

  11. Julius Caesar citations refer to the Arden edition, ed. T. S. Dorsch (London: Methuen, 1955). Except in cases of character designation, italics in play quotations are mine. Other play citations follow the Arden editions. My interpretation of this scene closely follows Frankie Rubinstein, A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Sexual Puns and Their Significance (London: Macmillan, 1984), pp. xi-xii. Interpretations of subsequent puns are indebted to Rubinstein; Eric Partridge, Shakespeare's Bawdy (1947; rprt. London: Routledge, 1968); and/or The Oxford English Dictionary, 2d edn.

  12. See, e.g., Rubinstein, p. 164; the marginal gloss accompanying William Tyndale's description of Rome's male brothels: “The wicked and monstrous doings of the pope” (An Answer to Sir Thomas More's Dialogue …, ed. Henry Walter, Parker Society (Cambridge, 1850), p. 171); and Thomas Beard's chapter titled “Of effeminate persons, Sodomites, and other such like monsters,” in The Theatre of Gods Judgements (London, 1612): “(T)here are too many such monsters (i.e., sodomites) in the world, so mightily is it corrupted & depraved: neither is it any marvell, seeing that divers bishops of Rome … are infected with this filthie contagion” (qtd. by Schleiner, p. 54). In addition to referring to size, “prodigious” meant unnatural and abnormal or monstrous (OED, s.v. “prodigious” 2, 3).

  13. See Barbara L. Parker, ‘“A Thing Unfirm: Plato's Republic and Shakespeare's Julius Caesar,SQ 44, 1 (Spring 1993): 30-43.

  14. These traits are substantially Shakespeare's additions. See Parker, ‘“A Thing Unfirm,” especially p. 33. Those who would argue that effeminacy precludes phallic hugeness should bear in mind that sexual preference neither determines nor governs phallic dimension (or, for that matter, phallic performance).

  15. Rubinstein, p. xii.

  16. Paster, p. 289.

  17. Paster, p. 295. See also Caroline Walker Bynum, “The Body of Christ in the Later Middle Ages: A Reply to Leo Steinberg,” RenQ [Renaissance Quarterly] 39, 3 (Autumn 1986): 399-439.

  18. Stephen Booth's gloss on line 4 of Shakespeare's Sonnet 126 is in order here: ‘“Lover meant ‘friend in context of a friendship, and this is such a context; ‘lover meant ‘paramour in context of a love affair, and by literary kind this is such a context. The effective meaning of ‘lover (and ‘love) in these sonnets is a dynamic and witty conflation of both meanings, which constantly and unsuccessfully strain to separate from one another. (Compare the cruder, less complete, and therefore intellectually more manageable fusion of love of God and sexual love in Donne's Holy Sonnets.)” (Shakespeare's Sonnets (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1977), p. 432).

  19. Paster, p. 297.

  20. Note Richard Wilson's related point:

    Twenty-seven times in thirty lines the favourite Shakespearean phallic pun is repeated through all its libidinous connotations as it is taken up by Antony and passed around the crowd … Thus, Caesar's will, which is his butchered flesh, is also by etymological extension his testament—his will power disseminated through his signed and written text—where the potency denied him in his sterile marriage … is regenerated from his posthumous stimulation of the desires of the crowd he makes his heir.

    (“‘Is This a Holiday?’: Shakespeare's Roman Carnival,” ELH 54, 1 (Spring 1987): 31-44, 39.).

  21. A. O. Meyer, England and the Catholic Church under Queen Elizabeth, trans. J. R. McKee (London: Routledge, 1967), p. 213; qtd. by Kaula, p. 205. Most of my observations in this paragraph are indebted to Kaula, pp. 199, 204-5.

  22. As Maurice Charney notes, “Brutus, fired … by Cassius, is now able to fire others” (Shakespeare's Roman Plays: The Function of Imagery in the Drama (Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1961), p. 61). My interpretation of the fire imagery is largely indebted to Charney (pp. 59-66).

  23. “The Form of Solemnization of Matrimony,” in Liturgical Services: Liturgies and Occasional Forms of Prayer Set Forth in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, ed. William Keatinge Clay, Parker Society (Cambridge, 1847), p. 220. As Roy Battenhouse has kindly pointed out to me, the “marriage” of Brutus to the conspirators is comparable to that of Othello to Iago (note especially Othello III.iii.467-86).

  24. Kaula, p. 210.

  25. See Paster, p. 293.

  26. Portia's maleness is further explored by Paster, pp. 293-4.

  27. Protestants viewed exorcism and conjuration as damnable. Cf. Rose, pp. 296-7.

  28. This point, with attendant citations, is Thomas McAlindon's, “The Numbering of Men and Days: Symbolic Design in The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,SP [Studies in Philology] 81, 3 (Summer 1984): 372-93, 383.

  29. Brutus's tyranny is extensively explored in Gordon Ross Smith's seminal “Brutus, Virtue, and Will,” SQ 10, 3 (Summer 1959): 367-79. See also Dorsch, p. xli.

  30. King, pp. 371-2.

  31. Schleiner, p. 67. See also Bruce Smith, p. 166. The reader disposed to question whether the play's puns would have been apparent to Shakespeare's audience will recall that sexual punning is not confined to Caesar but pervades the canon. Its sheer ubiquitousness suggests audience awareness of the device.

  32. Hugh M. Richmond, “Richard III and the Reformation,” JEGP [Journal of English and Germanic Philology] 83, 4 (October 1984): 509-21, 510-2.

  33. On Henry V, Romeo and Juliet, and Love's Labour's Lost, see Barbara L. Parker, A Precious Seeing: Love and Reason in Shakespeare's Plays (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1987), chaps. 9, 8, and 5, respectively. On Measure for Measure, see Darryl J. Gless, “Measure for Measure,” the Law, and the Convent (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1979), especially p. 102, to which my views, and my quotation, are indebted.

  34. See, e.g., Mark 14:62: “And Jesus said … ye shal se the Sonne of man sit at the right hand of the power of God”; Mark 16:19: “So after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received into heaven, & sate at the right hand of God”; and Rom. 8:34: “Who shal condemne? it is Christ, which is … risen againe, who is also at the right hand of God.”.

  35. Gloss, Matt. 22:44.

  36. This last point is made by Norman Sanders, “The Shift of Power in Julius Caesar,REL [A Review of English Literature] 5, 2 (April 1964): 24-35, 35. Further parallels are noted by Sanders.

  37. Blits, p. 166 n.

  38. This view of Octavius accords with views contained in Elizabethan histories of Rome, as set forth by Robert P. Kalmey, “Shakespeare's Octavius and Elizabethan Roman History,” SEL [Studies in English Literature 1500-1900] 18, 2 (Spring 1978): 275-87: Octavius is considered an “ideal prince only after he is crowned Emperor in Rome after the defeat of Antony; before this precise occasion, the same Elizabethan histories of Rome characterize Octavius as a vicious tyrant who foments bloody civil war and a reign of terror solely for his personal gain.” Thus, as a triumvir, “Octavius is revealed … as a pernicious demagogue” and “an ambitious and overreaching tyrant” (pp. 278-80; italics Kalmey's).

Further Reading

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Blits, Jan H. The End of the Ancient Republic: Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1993, 95 p.

Book-length analysis of the demise of Roman Republicanism as it is depicted in Julius Caesar. Blits examines the play's treatment of masculinity and male friendship, the downfall of Republican Rome, Brutus's political failures, and the ambiguity surrounding Caesar's fate.

Daniell, David. Introduction to Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare, edited by David Daniell, pp. 1-148. Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, U.K.: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., 1998.

Surveys the political issues of Julius Caesar, arguing that the only concrete political opinion Shakespeare expressed in the play is that the consequence of usurpation is civil war. Additionally, Daniell asserts that the play dramatizes in extreme terms the moral issues of rebellion.

Frye, Northrop. “The Tragedy of Order: Julius Caesar.” In Twentieth Century Interpretations of Julius Caesar: A Collection of Critical Essays. 1965. Reprint, edited by Leonard F. Dean, pp. 95-102. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.

Analyzes Julius Caesar as a social tragedy and surveys the relationship between Elizabethan society and the social order within the play.

Harrison, G. B. Introduction to Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare, edited by G. B. Harrison, pp. 15-21. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, U.K.: Penguin Books, 1956.

Offers a brief introduction to Julius Caesar, commenting on the play's composition, its early production and publication histories, and Shakespeare's adaptation of his sources.

Taylor, Gary. “Theatrical Proximities: The Stratford Festival 1998.” Shakespeare Quarterly 50, no. 3 (autumn 1999): 334-54.

Reviews the production of Julius Caesar presented at the 1998 Stratford Festival of Canada. The production, directed by Douglas Campbell, is assessed within the context of the Festival as a whole and found to be unsatisfactory. Taylor observes that, in his experience, the staging is one of the worst productions of Julius Caesar to be performed.

Thomas, Vivian. “Images and Self-Images in Julius Caesar.” In Shakespeare's Roman Worlds, pp. 40-92. London: Routledge, 1989.

Assesses the way Shakespeare drew upon his sources, particularly Plutarch, in developing the personal and political conflicts of Julius Caesar. Thomas stresses that the play's central political issue—whether or not Caesar's ambition is to destroy Roman democracy—is clearly demonstrated but never resolved.

Weier, Gary M. “Perspectivism and Form in Drama: A Burkean Analysis of Julius Caesar.Communication Quarterly 44, no. 2 (spring 1996): 246-59.

Applies Kenneth Burke's theories regarding form and perspectivism to an analysis of Julius Caesar's usage of rhetoric.


Julius Caesar (Vol. 63)


Julius Caesar (Vol. 85)