Scholars generally date the composition of Julius Caesar to 1599, between Shakespeare's Henry V and Hamlet, and suggest that the drama combines the elements of Shakespearean history and tragedy. Set in Rome in 44 b.c., the play depicts the senatorial conspiracy to murder Caesar and the political turmoil that ensues in the aftermath of the assassination. Critics observe that the drama features two potentially tragic figures: the slain emperor and Marcus Brutus, Caesar's close friend and the head of the conspirators. Contemporary scholars have continued the tradition of analyzing the motivations and ambiguities inherent in Shakespeare's dramatization of these historical personages, particularly Brutus. Additionally, modern commentators have studied Shakespeare's intriguing historical reconstruction of early Imperial Rome, with a particular focus on the interrelationship of history, politics, and philosophy in the drama. Summarizing a contemporary understanding of Julius Caesar, John Wilders (see Further Reading) calls the work “a brilliantly constructed political thriller” with powerful resonance in the modern world.
Character-centered study of Julius Caesar has primarily concentrated on the figure of Brutus, who is considered by many critics to be the tragic focus of the play. Although conventional, twentieth-century critical consensus on Brutus has tended to emphasize his nobility and idealism, some critics have stressed the ambivalent nature of his character. William R. Bowden (1966) describes Brutus as intellectually inferior to his coconspirator Cassius, as well as generally unperceptive and deliberately self-serving, despite his attempts to mask these tendencies. In contrast to Bowden's unfavorable portrait of Brutus, Ruth M. Levitsky (1973) remarks on the virtues of this character. Levitsky contends that Brutus's virtue derives from his Stoic persona and ideals, which are the source of his will, purpose, constancy, and passion. Similarly, A. D. Nuttall (1983) admires Shakespeare's finely nuanced portrayal of Brutus. Nuttall traces the ways in which Shakespeare infused Brutus's character with such abstract qualities as Stoicism, pathos, egotism, shame, and rationalization in order to produce a well-rounded, psychologically distinct character capable of eliciting audience sympathy. Julian C. Rice (1973) contends that Julius Caesar promotes a philosophy of character based upon Renaissance Pyrrhonism, a skeptical philosophical position that underscores the antiheroic, fallible, and incongruous attributes of the play's characters.
Throughout most of its history, Julius Caesar has been highly popular on the stage. Directors and audiences alike are attracted to the play's grandiose displays of pageantry, rhetorical eloquence, forceful characterizations, and exciting battle sequences. Director Edward Hall's 2001 to 2002 production of Julius Caesar with the Royal Shakespeare Company generally inspired praise from reviewers. Patrick Carnegy (2001) admires Hall's interpretation, particularly its portrayal of the conspirators, rather than Caesar, as the greater threat to Rome, and notes that the production captured “the ambiguities at the heart of the play.” Russell Jackson (2002) contends that despite Hall's “ruthless” cutting of Shakespeare's text, the director managed an effective Julius Caesar by balancing ideological allusions with innovative perspectives on character, such as Brutus's display of an overarching pride and ambition that nearly matched Caesar's own self-absorbed power. Reviewer Frank Johnson (2002), in contrast, returns a far more critical estimation of the production, arguing that the worn idea of Caesar as a fascist dictator, as in Hall's staging, should be retired. Karin Coonrod's Theatre for a New Audience production failed to impress Bruce Weber (2003), whose appraisal faults its reductive concentration on American partisan politics. In contrast, Weber praises Daniel Sullivan's 2003 production of Julius Caesar staged at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego, particularly its imaginative and politically evocative setting which depicted life after the collapse of the American empire and suggested the destructive legacy imposed by worldly ambition.
Shakespeare's representation of history and politics in Julius Caesar have been a major interest for contemporary critics. Joseph S. M. J. Chang (1970) views Julius Caesar as a demonstration of Shakespeare's historical relativism. According to Chang, the play illustrates that “the past is difficult to retrieve, and that the ends of history are best served by scrupulous objectivity.” Robin Headlam Wells (2002) claims that in Julius Caesar Shakespeare depicted a Machiavellian view of politics and history, but notes the play is “Machiavellian in the sense that it dramatises a pragmatic and sceptical view of politics which recognizes that virtue and utility are not always compatible.” Critics are also interested in the play's depiction of Rome and its affinities with Shakespeare's England. A. W. Bellringer (1970) maintains that the subject of Julius Caesar is essentially Roman, with no significant Elizabethan or modern parallels. Marvin L. Vawter (1973) also explores the play's Roman themes. The critic claims that the drama should be understood as a critique not just of Caesar's tyrannical ambition or the malicious intent of the conspirators, but as a wholesale condemnation of the corrupted Roman nobility for its destruction of natural, communal bonds. Myron Taylor (1973) regards Julius Caesar as a drama concerned with clashing philosophical perspectives: the Epicurean philosophy of Cassius and the superstitious worldview of Caesar. Taylor contends that the play refutes Cassius's atheist and materialist viewpoint and presents the philosophical message that “[m]en are not the masters of destiny, nor is history without moral significance.”