Joseph S. M. J. Chang (essay date January 1970)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3783

SOURCE: Chang, Joseph S. M. J. “Julius Caesar in the Light of Renaissance Historiography.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 69, no. 1 (January 1970): 63-71.

[In the following essay, Chang views Julius Caesar as a demonstration of Shakespeare's historical relativism.]

Criticism of Julius Caesar has moved steadily toward the position recently taken by Mildred E. Hartsock, that the play “is a demonstration that the truth of character cannot be known.”1 Earlier critics had become reconciled to a divided characterization of Caesar, and they began to find inconsonances in Brutus as well.2 The more the play is examined, the more one is inclined to accept the conclusion Miss Hartsock tentatively offers: “Perhaps Shakespeare was playing a bitter ‘modern’ trick, and, in the spirit of Pilate's embarrassing question, implying that the truth cannot be known.” The difficulty, by her own admission, is that this interpretation comes close to proposing “that in 1599, a playwright would be expressing a twentieth-century concept of relativity.” It is the purpose of this paper to suggest that the concept of relativity is not peculiar to the present age, and that the internal evidence which Miss Hartsock drew from the play was not misconstrued. Julius Caesar exploits for dramatic purposes the growing awareness among Renaissance historians and others that the past is difficult to retrieve, and that the ends of history are best served by scrupulous objectivity.3 What begins in the period with the attempt to define the ends and means of history culminates in Julius Caesar as the dramatic representation of the ironic discrepancy between man's desired and created realities. Nothing of a man's character can be inferred from his actions.

Machiavelli, especially in his Discourses and History of Florence, provided the Renaissance with an example of history as a science—accurate, analytical, and dispassionate. In these works he manifests the principle that, in the affairs of state at least, actions have always been framed to the demands of the situation. Thus, the history of the past reveals a politic for the present; the ideal prince must be an astute observer of the moment. For the unsophisticated of orthodox moral commitment, the reaction was simple, since the distinction between ethics and politics was unacceptable. For others, there was a real challenge in the historical basis of Machiavellianism. Jean Bodin, Samuel Daniel, and Francis Bacon attempted to accommodate the new demands of historical accuracy to the old ethical norms. Though Bodin never accepts Machiavelli's apparent indifference to ethical imperatives, regarding politics as the Florentine did, “a system of actions and reactions operating in a moral vacuum,”4 neither does he excuse the crude injection of moral commentary in history: “The first attempts to embroider history occurred when it was thought fine to use an honorable lie for the praise of virtuous characters and the vituperation of evil.”5 In effect, the new science of historiography imposed an ethical neutrality6—though quite unlike Machiavelli's—on those with an undeniable commitment to orthodox ethics. Objectivity insists that praise and blame be withheld. This quality is the final mark of the true historian, in Bodin's estimation: “The best writers are fully equipped on all three counts [integrity, learning, and experience], if only they could rid themselves of all emotion in writing history.”7

Montaigne clearly states his approval of these standards in his praise of those historians “who have nothing of their owne to adde unto the storie, and have but the care and diligence to collect whatsoever come unto their knowledge, and sincerely and faithfully to register all things, without choice or culling, by...

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the naked truth leave our judgement more entire, and better satisfied.”8 The consequence of revealing all, however, is that there will be events in a man's life which simply cannot be reconciled and for that reason no single judgment can be made about a man. Montaigne advises against seeking coherence in men's lives, a temptation to which even good historians succumb.

There is some apparence to judge a man by the most common conditions of his life, but seeing the naturall instability of our customes and opinions; I have often thought, that even good Authors, doe ill, and take a wrong course, wilfully to opinionate themselves about framing a constant and solide contexture of us. They chuse an universall ayre, and following that image, range and interpret all a mans actions; which if they cannot wrest sufficiently, they remit them unto dissimulation.9

While the ideal man may be exemplified in Cato, whose life is “an harmony of well according tunes and which cannot contradict it selfe,” Montaigne recognizes that “With us, it is cleane contrary, so many actions, so many particular judgements are there requir'd. The surest way [to understand past events] (in mine opinion) were to refer them unto the next circumstances, without entering into further search, and without concluding any other consequence of them.”10 Thus, the critical factors in human events lie not in the will of man but in the circumstances of his life, and since those circumstances are forever changing, there can be little opportunity for constructing a consistent view of men. Whether history reflects the principles of Machiavelli's opportunism, or Bodin's objectivity, or Montaigne's skepticism, the recording of the past exposes man as a creature governed by occasion.

Montaigne's caveat is addressed to the historian, though it deserves consideration by the dramatic critic as well. For what he says is apt in the case of Caesar, pointing to a way of looking at the man's inconsistent behavior. In addition to the fact of a divided tradition of praise and blame, and the cogent suggestion that the shifting portrait reveals not the man himself but those who view him,11 there remains the consideration that Caesar responds to different situations in ways that are proper to the given circumstances. The swimming episode as recounted by Cassius shows Caesar as a coward in the face of death. And even if some allowance is made for Cassius' hatred, the fact remains that Caesar was afraid. Speaking for himself, Caesar declares that death, being the necessary end, holds no terror for him. Finally, at the moment of his assassination, he bears himself well. The courageous equanimity he expresses only serves to underscore the difference in his conduct when on two occasions he faces actual death, and may therefore be discounted as a dramatic device to force the issue home. Ordinarily, the discrepancy in Caesar's conduct is taken as evidence of his character, although another approach is possible. Caesar is fearful when death is close but not certain, as in the swimming episode: Cassius is there to save him. But when it is too late, after the conspirators have struck their several blows, he is capable of the resolve he claimed in repudiating fear of death. At his last moment, under the circumstances, Et tu, Brute! is the mot juste.

Caesar is no different from the conjectural example Montaigne uses to illustrate his point about the behavior of men.

He whom you saw yesterday so boldly-venturous, wonder not if you see him a dastardly meacocke to morrow next: for either anger or necessitie, company or wine, a sudden fury or the clang of a trumpet, might rowze-up his heart, and stir up his courage. It is no heart nor courage so framed by discourse or deliberation: These circumstances have setled the same in him: Therefore it is no marvell if by other contrary circumstance he become a craven and change coppy.12

The difficulty is that historians, moral commentators, and critics are ever ready to revert to explaining events in terms of character, as in the case of Caesar's fatal decision to attend the Senate. Caesar in II.ii vacillates between going to the Senate and remaining at home, unable to decide because he does not know what to make of Calpurnia's dreams. Without question, vanity intervenes to lead credibility to error, but only because the truth is not self-evident. Whether vanity is the principal characteristic of the man is beside the point, since, from his point of view, the evidence of dreams and augury offered no firm basis for intelligent choice. The irrelevance of motive and act can be further illustrated by reference to Cassius' suicide, for there, too, ambiguous circumstances propel a man to his death. As Pindarus relates the scene taking place, there is no indication that the troop surrounding Titinius is hostile, though that is the distinct impression the audience gets. With the noblest of intentions, the restoration of personal honor jeopardized by having sent forth a friend to his capture, Cassius commits suicide. As things turn out, the surrounding troops were allies, and Cassius becomes a victim of his own version of reality. If the dramatic point here is to present the absolute discrepancy between the best of motives and a futile act, perhaps little can be said about Caesar's pride and his own heroic death.

As historians freed themselves from the obligation to offer heroes and villains, restricting themselves to demonstrable truths, they came to the greater moral problem implicit in Montaigne's skepticism. For while the older school might presume that the great crimes of history are the effects of malicious and designing men, men on the order of Shakespeare's Richard III, the new historians found in the past a complex web of causes and pressures, the sum of which reduced the significance of individual initiative. Samuel Daniel, in his epic treatment of the fall of Richard II and the accession of Henry Bolingbroke, departs from Mirror tradition to claim that quite possibly the usurper was himself guiltless, being no more than a man who reacted appropriately to opportunities not of his own making. Of Bolingbroke, he writes,

          And let vnwresting Charitie beleeue
That then thy oath with thy intent agreed;
And others faith, thy faith did first deceiue,
Thy after-fortune forc't thee to this deed.(13)

Daniel then comments on the historical accounts of the event, pointing out the impossibility of discerning a man's motives, refusing to make coherent what in fact is only sequentially linked:

          Whil'st those that are but outward lookers on …
Deeme things were so contriv'd as they are done,
And hold that policie, which was but fate;
Imagining, all former acts did run
Vnto that course they see th'effects relate. …(14)

Rejecting the interpretation found in the Mirror for Magistrates, that Henry Bolingbroke was driven by pride,15 Daniel in addition chooses not to consider Bolingbroke's pledge as inspired by policy. Rather than reconciling the man's words and his deeds by charging dissimulation, he accepts the disparity. Moreover, in attributing to fate the otherwise unaccountable rise, he means to say only that one thing led to the next, that each succeeding situation offered the man the option of rising or falling, and that there was no choice, no malice. Finally, Daniel, like Montaigne, is acutely conscious of the historian's penchant for creating a meaningful pattern where none existed. On this, Daniel could not be clearer:

          For, some the world must haue, on whom to lay
The heauie burthen of reproche and blame;
Against whose deedes, th'afflicted may inuay,
As th'onely Authors, whence destruction came:
When yet, perhaps, 'twas not in them to stay
The current of that streame, nor help the same;
But, liuing in the eye of Action so,
Not hindring it, are thought to draw-on wo.
          So much vnhappie do the Mightie stand …
That if by weakenesse, folly, negligence,
They do not coming miserie withstand,
They shall be deemed th'authors of th'offence,
And to call in, that which they kept not out;
And curst, as they who brought those plagues about.
          And so remaine for euer rigistred
In that eternall booke of Infamie;
When yet how many other causes led
As well to that, as their iniquitie?(16)

The ramifications of historical objectivity are, I believe, evident even as Daniel dismisses the naïveté of seeking out scapegoats for the shattering disorders of the past. For the price to be paid is man's freedom; fate and chaos replace personal initiative, and men are lost in the great movements of history. Jean Bodin, who contributed greatly to the development of historical investigations, found himself dealing with the paradox that while man shapes history, he cannot be said to control his own life. Man shapes history by accident and not by grand design. The problem is not that men are corrupt and vicious, as Machiavelli suggests,17 but that they are the prisoners of fallibility.

But because human history mostly flows from the will of mankind, which ever vacillates and has no objective—nay rather, each day new laws, new customs, new institutions, new manners confront us—so, in general, human actions are invariably involved in new errors unless they are directed by nature as leader. That is, they err if they are not directed by correct reasoning or if, when the latter has deteriorated, they are not guided without the help of secondary causes by that divine foresight which is closer to the principle of their origin. If we depart from this, we shall fall headlong into all sorts of infamy. Although the mind of man, plucked from the eternal mind, isolates itself as far as possible from earthly stain, still because it is deeply immersed in unclean matter, it is so influenced by contact with it, and even distracted within itself by conflicting emotions, that without divine aid it can neither uplift itself nor achieve any degree of justice nor accomplish anything according to nature. Consequently it comes about that as long as we are handicapped by the weakness of our senses and by a false image of things, we are not able to discern useful from useless or true from false or base from honorable, but by a misuse of words we attribute our actions to prudence in order not to trespass.18

Bodin, it should be noted, implicitly concedes to man the conscious desire to pursue the good, raising instead the question of man's ability to discern the true from the false, or the base from the honorable. In the case of Marcus Brutus, the problem is not the determination of his moral fiber, for that is bound with Roman honor. The question is whether he can effect his high ends when handicapped by his humanity. His is the new servitude to error, replacing the medieval slavery to Fortune. Unlike the malicious Cassius, Brutus freely wills the conclusion derived through logical error. Though Machiavelli rejects the abject state of man as subject to the fickle goddess, others find man in bondage to error. “Opinion,” Ben Jonson writes, “is a light, vaine, crude, and imperfect thing, settled in the Imagination; but never arriving at the understanding, there to obtaine the tincture of Reason. Wee labour with it more than Truth. There is much more holds us, then presseth us. An ill fact is one thing, an ill fortune is another: Yet both often-times sway us alike, by the error of our thinking.”19 Though Fortune may intervene in human affairs, more frequent are the occasions when man is frustrated by his own failures in separating reality from appearances. At the most fundamental level, appearance and reality are matters of epistemology. To the extent that action and will are dependent on knowledge and understanding, whether the truths affirmed correspond to objective reality bears on the problem of conduct. Significantly, man is least blameworthy when his vicious actions issue from error, and this may well account for our ability to accept Brutus at face value.

Often regarded as an anticipation of the tragedies, the play is as well a culmination of the histories. The divided response of history to Brutus and Caesar, one alternately patriot and assassin, the other hero and tyrant, only emphasized the unreliability of historical accounts. And in the melancholy events surrounding the Ides of March, there were the prima facie discrepancies between intention and act. In the play, Cassius anticipates the judgment of history.

                                        How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted o'er
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!


But history made of that scene what it would, even as Brutus and Antony did in their funeral orations. In history, as in the play, the demands of the situation, and not the deed itself, controlled the view taken.

Shakespeare's purpose, however, was that of a dramatist, and accordingly he managed his material in order to exploit just that kind of irony implicit in Bodin and Daniel, of seeing man committing acts of unavoidable moral significance and yet lacking full awareness of what it is he is doing. Rather than an objective portrait of Brutus, Shakespeare presents the noblest Roman of them all, a man so completely dedicated to honor that he never for a moment considers that he may be wrong. Such is the protagonist who kills the man he honors in death with the title, “my best lover” (III.i.50), and who incites the civil war which destroys the very Republic he seeks to preserve. By removing from his character any hint of malice or self-serving aspiration, Shakespeare creates the paradox of good performing evil, or, more to the point, of the irreconcilable gap between intention and act. Brutus is a moral agent altogether different from the usual. Where the older tradition held that he was responsible for his actions, whether he was regarded as assassin or liberator and patriot, in Shakespeare he is allowed his nobility even when his actions are deplored. In the interview with Portia, Shakespeare builds toward a moment of self-confrontation, when Brutus must acknowledge what his wife will most assuredly tell him. But the scene is cut off, thereby allowing the audience to understand the terrible fact of murder in assassination, even while denying Brutus this last chance to refer his illusions to the moral realities his wife discerns. The point of the play is not that character cannot be known; every schoolboy knows that Brutus is noble. The play presents the bizarre spectacle of crime without guilt.

A rereading of Richard II, with attention to Bolingbroke, who never explicitly declares his hopes for the throne, and to Richard, who relinquishes the kingship even before the crown, will reveal that Julius Caesar is not the first instance of events shaping themselves in spite of conscious human intention. Nor is it the last, for there is yet Troilus and Cressida. And for the precise reason that Shakespeare was not a modern playwright who might well be satisfied with a demonstration of relativity in human affairs, he passed on to Hamlet. Hamlet is a reply to man's apparent dislocation through subjectivism. Its hero is a man keenly aware of how small a part of life is really his, in terms of reason and will, and yet who refuses to concede his humanity to either the imposition of heaven or the tyranny of dubious impressions.


  1. Mildred E. Hartsock, “The Complexity of Julius Caesar,PMLA, LXXXI (1966), 56-62. My citations are from pp. 61 and 62.

  2. Brents Stirling, Unity in Shakespearian Tragedy (New York, 1956), p. 47; Adrien Bonjour, The Structure of Julius Caesar (Liverpool, 1958), p. 20; Ernest Schanzer, The Problem Plays of Shakespeare (New York, 1963), pp. 46-57.

  3. Of special value are J. W. Allen, A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century (London, 1928); Ernst Cassirer, The Myth of the State (New Haven, 1946); Lily Bess Campbell, Shakespeare's Histories: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy (San Marino, 1947); Hiram Haydn, The Counter-Renaissance, particularly Chapters 2, 3, and 4 (New York, 1950); F. Fussner, The Historical Revolution: English Historical Writing and Thought, 1580-1640 (London, 1962); Kenneth Douglas McRae's Introduction to his fascimile edition of Jean Bodin, The Six Bookes of a Commonweale (Cambridge, Mass., 1962); Julian H. Franklin, Jean Bodin and the Sixteenth Century Revolution in the Methodology of Law and History (New York, 1963); and Felix Raab, The English Face of Machiavelli (London, 1964).

  4. Mario Praz, “Machiavelli and the Elizabethans,” in The Flaming Heart (New York, 1958), p. 96. The study is an expansion of “‘The Politic Brain’: Machiavelli and the Elizabethans,” The Proceedings of the British Academy (London, 1928), pp. 49-97.

  5. Jean Bodin, Method for the Easy Comprehension of History, trans. Beatrice Reynolds (New York, 1944), p. 43.

  6. For this useful phrase I am indebted to Max Otto. What he intended by it is something other than my application; however, his original sense has a high degree of relevance to this study: “Science is ethically neutral in its processes but not in its results. It does things to man's world and his outlook. One of the things it does is to deprive the natural order of the kind of meaning which has long been deemed necessary to sustain an ethical or a religious spirit” (The Human Enterprise [New York, 1940], p. 241).

  7. Bodin, Method, p. 43.

  8. The Essays of Montaigne, trans. John Florio, ed. W. E. Henley, The Tudor Translations (London, 1893), II, 104. Note Montaigne's remarks on Guicciardini: “Moreover, I have noted this, that of so severall and divers armes, successes, and effects he judgeth of; of so many and variable motives, alterations, and counsels, that he relateth, he never referreth any one unto vertue, religion, or conscience: as if they were all extinguished and banished the world: and of all actions, how glorious soever in apparance they be of themselves, he doth ever impute the cause of them, to some vicious and blameworthie occasion, or to some commoditie and profit” (Essays, II, 107).

  9. Essays, II, 6. Cf. Hartsock: “It is more convincing to say that Julius Caesar is not a problem play, but a play about a problem: the difficulty—perhaps the impossibility—of knowing the truth of men and of history” (p. 61). Sir Philip Sidney, in the Apology for Poetry, objects of the historian, “Many times he must tell events whereof he can yield no cause; or, if he do, it must be poetical” (ed. Geoffrey Shepherd [London, 1965], p. 110).

  10. Essays, II, 8. In a dedicatory letter to Leicester, John Stow speaks of history as “setting before our eyes, to our instruction & profite, the incredible inconstancie, & continuall alterations of this transitorie world” (The Chronicles of England [London, 1580]).

  11. Schanzer, pp. 32-33.

  12. Essays, II, 9.

  13. Samuel Daniel, The Civil Wars, ed. Laurence Michel (New Haven, 1958), I, 98.

  14. Civil Wars, I, 99.

  15. Mirror for Magistrates, ed. Lily Bess Campbell (Cambridge, 1938), p. 53.

  16. Civil Wars, V, 65-67.

  17. “By no means can a prudent ruler keep his word—and he does not—when to keep it works against himself and when the reasons that made him promise are annulled. If all men were good, this maxim would not be good, but because they are bad and do not keep their promises to you, you likewise do not have to keep yours to them” (The Prince, in Machiavelli: The Chief Works and Others, trans. Allan Gilbert [Durham, 1965], I, 65).

  18. Bodin, Method, p. 17.

  19. Timber: or, Discoveries, in Ben Jonson, ed. Herford and Simpson (London, 1937), VIII, 564.

William R. Bowden (essay date winter 1966)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6187

SOURCE: Bowden, William R. “The Mind of Brutus.” Shakespeare Quarterly 17, no. 1 (winter 1966): 57-67.

[In the following essay, Bowden describes Brutus as self-righteous and intellectually limited.]

A bothersome passage in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is Brutus' accusation of Cassius in the celebrated quarrel scene:

                                                            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: was that done like Cassius?


These lines have elicited a good deal of scholarly comment (as what lines in Shakespeare have not?), but I do not know that their implications in an assessment of Brutus' character have ever really been faced. Let us attempt to face them here.

What Brutus is saying is, in blunt paraphrase, something like this: “I need money to pay my troops, but I am too noble to extort it from the poor; Cassius, you extort it from the poor and give it to me.” Obviously Brutus is unconscious of the double irony of his position here; but I simply cannot subscribe to any concept of Shakespeare which would represent him as unaware of this irony.2 Yet if Shakespeare is aware of it, we face this dilemma: either he hoped that we would overlook the irony, or he intended it to have significance. Since the ironic juxtaposition of ideas is not present in Plutarch,3 it would seem hard to defend the first of these possibilities, though Sir Mark Hunter has made the attempt: “We forget for the moment—we are intended to forget—that Brutus' indignation is due not only to hatred of extortion, but to resentment because (as he asserts) Cassius has refused him a share of the ‘vile trash’ so indirectly obtained.”4 If we are intended to forget something as obvious, indeed as obtrusive, as this, then surely at least three-quarters of the Shakespeare criticism of the past century must go out the window as being concerned with matters much more subtle and therefore much more likely to have been intended by Shakespeare to be forgotten. If, on the other hand, we are intended to notice and weigh these lines, then we must draw from them conclusions about the character of Brutus which are contrary to the tenor of most current opinion concerning him.

The position which I think becomes untenable is this: that Brutus is a sensitive, introspective, intellectual soul,5 “the first of [the] new tragic heroes”,6 Shakespeare's “first triumph in the depiction of a mind's inner struggle”,7 a revulsion from the man of action Prince Hal,8 and a sort of dry run for Hamlet.9 A Brutus who could say what this one says to Cassius is not sensitive, introspective, intellectual; there are areas in which he might be shown both intellectually and morally inferior to Hal; and if he bears kinship to any of the major tragic heroes, it is a distant kinship to Othello, certainly not a close one to Hamlet.

Three aspects of Brutus' character demand appraisal here: (1) his intellectual quality or lack of it; (2) his inner conflict; and (3) his eligibility to join the tragic heroes who like Othello experience a recognition of error or a final moment of vision.

Brutus is not presented in the play as an intellectual. His friend Caesar does not think of him as mentally formidable; it is “that spare Cassius” who “thinks too much”, who

                                                                                          reads much;
He is a great observer and he looks
Quite through the deeds of men …

(I. ii. 201-203)

In Plutarch's telling of this story, Brutus was linked with Cassius:

… he aunswered them againe, as for those fatte men and smooth comed heades, quod he, I never reckon of them: but these pale visaged and carian leane people, I feare them most, meaning Brutus and Cassius.10

By relegating Brutus' studiousness, which Plutarch had stressed, to encounters with Lucius over the whereabouts of mislaid books, and by separating Brutus from the comment on “that spare Cassius”, Shakespeare sets up an implicit contrast between the mental powers of the two men. This contrast he then exploits in Cassius' final soliloquy in I.ii:

Well, Brutus, thou art noble; yet, I see,
Thy honourable metal may be wrought
From that it is disposed: therefore it is meet
That noble minds keep ever with their likes;
For who so firm that cannot be seduced?
Caesar doth bear me hard; but he loves Brutus:
If I were Brutus now and he were Cassius,
He should not humour me. I will this night,
In several hands, in at his windows throw,
As if they came from several citizens,
Writings all tending to the great opinion
That Rome holds of his name; wherein obscurely
Caesar's ambition shall be glanced at:
And after this let Caesar seat him sure;
For we will shake him, or worse days endure.

(I. ii. 312-326)

Ambiguous though the middle part of this soliloquy may be, the tone and import of the whole are perfectly clear—and both are remarkably similar to those of other soliloquies concerning

                                                                      a free and open nature,
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,
And will as tenderly be led by the nose
As asses are …

(Othello I. iii. 405-408)


                                                            a brother noble,
Whose nature is so far from doing harms,
That he suspects none; on whose foolish honesty
My practices ride easy!

(King Lear I. ii. 195-198)

What little is said in the play by other characters that has any relevance to the quality of Brutus' mind is therefore hardly flattering, being marked by an absence of praise and a faint hint of disparagement.

But a man whose friends underrate him may demonstrate his intelligence by his deeds, may he not? He may indeed, as Edgar does in King Lear; but Brutus does not. He is taken in by Cassius. He is taken in by an appeal to an irrational quality, his pride in his name and position. Worst of all, he is taken in by a trick—the planting of anonymous hortatory letters. Now, according to Plutarch, these letters were genuine ones from people who “desired chaunge” but “durst not come to him them selves to tell him what they would have him to doe”;11 and Cassius, finding Brutus stirred by them, merely egged him on the more. Shakespeare deliberately alters this detail, as we have seen; in the play the letters represent no popular mandate, but are forged and planted by Cassius alone. It is hard to believe that if Shakespeare had wanted to stress Brutus' intelligence, he would thus have introduced, unnecessarily, a trick which at about this same time he was allowing Maria to play on Malvolio. Brutus' first and most important act, then, his decision to join the conspiracy, is no proof of mental stature. Once in, of course, he embarks on a whole series of overridings of Cassius' sounder judgment, every one of which works out badly: the decisions to let Antony live, to let Antony speak, to fight at Philippi.12 Something more than mere bad luck is necessary to account for a man's being so consistently wrong.

Not only in what Brutus does but in what he says we find evidence of lack of perspicacity, of insensitivity of mind. Aside from the lines with which we began this study, the most noteworthy instance is probably the soliloquy at the beginning of Act II: “It must be by his death …” (II. i. 10-34). “This is singular”, said Coleridge of this speech,13 and not the least singular thing about it is the near-unanimity of the critics that it is a “line of argument … invented to support a foregone conclusion”.14 The soliloquy is not a logical train of thought leading to a decision, but a rationalization of a decision already reached—and not a very good rationalization, since there would seem to be no reason not to wait and see how Caesar might behave if he became king. (As Coleridge points out, with the comment that the failure is “lowering to the intellect of this Stoico-Platonic tyrannicide”,15 Brutus apparently does not object to the presence of a king, but only to the prospect of such a king as Caesar might become.) Bernard Breyer defends the soliloquy as an essay on tyranny, intended not to tell us what Brutus knows about Caesar but to enumerate evils in Caesar “which we, the audience, either know or will shortly find out.”16 But this gets us into the dangerously subjective situation of trying to decide of any speech whether it is realistic or dramaturgic when in fact it cannot be exclusively either one. This speech is made by Brutus; it is therefore just as valid evidence concerning his character as any other speech by him. It shows him trying to convince himself of the propriety of an action he has already resolved to perform. In doing so, he fails to recognize that he is rationalizing, and he fails to see that his original decision is based on suspicions rather than on facts. In other words, he fails to look objectively at himself and his own mental processes—exactly the same failure we observed in the quotation which introduced this paper. Here, it would seem, is an essential intellectual weakness in Brutus—not a submergence of intellect in passion, but simply an intellectual limitation.

More than one scholar has noted the irony in the fact that it is Brutus, leader-to-be of the conspiracy, who repeats to Caesar the Soothsayer's warning in I.ii, “Beware the ides of March.” Perhaps a deeper irony lies in the fact that Brutus' first speech in the play is a mere repetition of someone else's idea.

But on this whole topic of Brutus' intellectual capacities we hardly need bother to amass detailed evidence. Rather we might compare some of the people Shakespeare presents explicitly as men of thought: Ulysses analyzing the failure to capture Troy, sight-reading the character of Cressida, and manipulating Ajax and Achilles, or Hamlet baffling Polonius, probing the motives of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and devising the test of the Mousetrap. Brutus' mind simply does not command our interest and respect as these other minds do; he is not in a class with these men.

Now, one need not be an intellectual to experience an agonizing inner conflict. We do have some evidence of inner turmoil in Brutus. He himself tells Cassius that he is “with himself at war”:

                                                            Vexed I am
Of late with passions of some difference,
Conceptions only proper to myself. …

(I. ii. 39-41)

Later he says, in lines which Hardin Craig (p. 778) has called “one of the most perfect expressions in Shakespeare of the psychology of warring emotions, hesitation, and inward conflict”,

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.

(II. i. 61-69)

So Brutus says he has an inner conflict; and, sure, he is an honorable man. But when we ask the exact nature of this conflict we run into trouble. Is it simply a question of whether to participate in the conspiracy or not? If so, the conflict is over before Brutus gets around to this “perfect expression” of it, because his mind is obviously made up at the beginning of the speech “It must be by his death”, which precedes this one by fifty lines. As a matter of fact, Brutus' response to Cassius' initial sounding-out (I. ii. 162 ff.) indicates clearly that his mind is already pretty well made up, at least as far as the necessity for some action is concerned, though he is not yet ready to reveal his decision to Cassius. There is never the least hint of “shall I or shall I not” in Brutus' lines. Surely, as Bernard Grebanier has said of Hamlet, “no five-act play can be thought to have as its subject matter an idea which is never dealt with on the stage and is exhibited solely off stage between the conclusion of the first act and the opening of the second.”17

Well, then, the conflict must be between the antithetic claims of love and duty. Probably such an interpretation is fixed in the minds of hundreds of thousands of Americans who remember the interminable tormented hesitation of James Mason as Brutus when, dagger raised, he stared into the pleading eyes of Louis Calhern as Caesar in the MGM film version of the play of a few years ago. The raw material for this interpretation is present in the source: Plutarch tells at length in his Life of Marcus Brutus of Brutus' appeal to Caesar after the battle of Pharsalia, of Caesar's forgiving him and showing him great favor (indeed, favoritism, as in the contest between Brutus and Cassius for the praetorship), of Caesar's virtually designating Brutus his political heir.18 But Shakespeare has deliberately thrown all this material away; his Brutus owes Caesar nothing but a normal reciprocation of Caesar's love for him. Both Cassius and Antony emphasize Caesar's love for Brutus. Nobody has a corresponding word about Brutus' love for Caesar—except Brutus himself, who mentions it perfunctorily in his first interview with Cassius (I. ii. 82) and in his interview with Antony after the assassination (III. i. 182). Moreover, when Caesar asks his visitors to taste some wine with him before they go, like friends, together to the Capitol, Brutus says, aside,

That every like is not the same, O Caesar,
The heart of Brutus yearns to think upon!

(II. ii. 128-129)

According to Gordon Ross Smith, Brutus “grieves that he can not drink as a friend.”19 Perhaps. As I read this distich, however, it is not enough to establish the idea of an internal conflict—it is just enough to remind us that Brutus is betraying a friend. Ernest Schanzer also thinks the civil war within Brutus results “from the conflict between personal and political loyalties.”20 Significantly, he omits from the paper on Brutus in which he offers this interpretation something which he brings out in another article on Julius Caesar himself: the Judas echoes in the sharing of wine before the betrayal, and the kiss in the Capitol.21

One wonders whether the Brutus Shakespeare creates for us could feel enough affection for anyone to suffer much internal conflict as a result. Here is a man who addresses his own wife as good, gentle, true, honorable, noble, but only once as dear, and who is moved to share his secrets with her not by love but by admiration of her for gashing her thigh with a razor. I am willing to read his reception of the news of Portia's death as conscious Romanizing on Shakespeare's part, comparable to the Stoic acceptance by Old Siward of his son's death in Macbeth;22 but if Brutus is supposed to be a loving husband, he has strayed into Shakespeare from the world of Catiline and Sejanus. Shakespeare's idea of conjugal fondness is seen rather in the affectionate scuffling of Hotspur and Kate, or in the compelling need for each other of Macbeth and his lady. Even in the lonely dragon Coriolanus with his “My gracious silence, hail!” there is far more tenderness than there is in the noble Brutus with his polite

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

(II. i. 288-290)

This is a revealing simile: our heart's blood is essential to us, but our feeling toward it is not exactly affection.23

Nor does Brutus show up much better as a friend. In the famous quarrel scene, Cassius has a specific and, to him, legitimate grievance. Brutus responds with an ad hominem attack—Cassius has an itching palm, is corrupt, deserves punishment—and goes on to bait Cassius with deliberate insults: “Slight man! … Shall I be frighted when a madman stares? … from this day forth, / I'll use you for my mirth …” (IV. iii. 1-82). With the icy weight of his self-esteem he bears Cassius down and then graciously allows his humiliated friend to accept the blame for the quarrel which he himself has engineered as a sort of experiment in psychological sadism. No, Shakespeare does not see this Brutus as a sensitive man torn between patriotism and personal affection.24

If it is impossible to find in Julius Caesar a fully convincing inner conflict between Brutus' heart and his head, can we find one between the various abstract principles which seem to be what he has instead of a heart? Can we believe with MacCallum and Schanzer, for instance, that Brutus' conflict is between the idealism of his intentions and the ugliness of the means which must be employed?25 There is some evidence to this effect: Brutus does speak once of the “monstrous visage” of conspiracy (II. i. 77 ff.), and as Stirling has shown, he does attempt to elevate the assassination into ritual.26 Unfortunately, we dare not take our eyes off this evidence if we are to remain convinced by it, for against Brutus' solitary reference to the ugliness of conspiracy are balanced a great many speeches on the honorable and praiseworthy qualities of the deed: Brutus thinks honor alone, without an oath, should motivate the participants; he warrants the action as honorable to the ailing Caius Ligarius; in the Forum he defends it, without embarrassment, in the eyes of the whole world; nowhere does he express horror or revulsion in connection with it, either in prospect or in retrospect. Now, when Shakespeare wants to develop a dramatically effective conflict growing out of a choice or a dilemma, he leaves no doubt as to the nature of that dilemma—it is unquestionably passion versus moral sense with Angelo, life versus morality with Claudio, ambition versus conscience with Macbeth, and so on down the line. Brutus does not belong in this company. And so we end up with a vague sense of the existence of inner conflict, but with no assurance that this conflict is central in the play or even that we know what it is about.

The argument remaining to be considered is that the true inwardness of Brutus is revealed after the assassination of Caesar rather than before—that he is tortured by the recognition of a truth which only tragedy could teach him. Such a recognition might be either that he has done a wrong deed or that his good deed has had a bad outcome. Either way, Brutus would be a good tragic hero in the eyes of those whose definition of tragedy includes the moment of recognition of error or failure, the flash of insight or vision, before the end.

The first of these interpretations would put Brutus beside Othello as a good man who is led to do a bad act for what he thinks are good reasons and who learns too late how wrong he has been.27 But although he resembles Othello in that he is deceived into wrong action, he is unlike Othello in that he never for a moment admits even to himself that he has been wrong about anything.28 There is certainly a recognition of defeat in Brutus' farewell to Cassius, in his acceptance of Cassius' death, and in his own suicide; but when he says

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

(V. v. 36-38)

he is obviously not crying “Peccavi”, and even in the words with which he runs on his sword there is no implication that he is punishing himself:

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

(V. v. 50-51)

Rather, he is simply retiring with dignity from a losing game in which his opponents have taken a not quite gentlemanly advantage of him. Can we imagine Brutus saying to himself, “O fool! fool! fool!”? If not, then there is a considerable distance between Brutus and Othello.

Suppose, however, that Brutus really has acted wisely and well all along and that he is defeated only by bad luck, or even by naïveté as opposed to error; would it not then be the most excruciating torment for him to contemplate the ironic contrast between the service he meant to do Rome and the disaster he has actually brought about? This is another popular interpretation.29 But as Robert Ornstein implies, Brutus' political theory never descends to such a level of practicality as to consider what happens to the state or to other people.30 Absolutely nothing he says in the last two acts of the play can legitimately be construed as indicating that he ever sees this whole train of events as an experience affecting others besides him, or as having practical political results.31 Here is the ending of his farewell speech:

So fare you well at once; for Brutus' tongue
Hath almost ended his life's history:
Night hangs upon mine eyes; my bones would rest,
That have but labour'd to attain this hour.

(V. v. 39-42)

It is his life's history that is ending; with his death, the story will be over. The fact that Rome's story will go on does not seem to interest him at all; he does not mention her.

In the most famous lines of this same speech there is the same irony that launched us on this study:

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

(V. v. 33-35)

We can hardly help thinking of Cassius' deception, and of Antony's utter disregard of his promises to the man who had just saved his life. This irony was not present in Brutus' speech as Shakespeare found it in Plutarch, but concern for the state was present:

It rejoyceth my hart that not one of my frends hath failed me at my neede, and I do not complaine of my fortune, but only for my countries sake: for, as for me, I thinke my selfe happier than they that have overcome, considering that I leave a perpetuall fame of our corage and manhoode, the which our enemies the conquerors shall never attaine unto by force nor money, neither can let their posteritie to say, that they being naughtie and unjust men, have slaine good men, to usurpe tyrannical power not pertaining to them.32

These must be deliberate changes on Shakespeare's part, and they indicate that Shakespeare meant to cast on Brutus the light in which we have been viewing him.

Shakespeare was a practical playwright, and interpretation of his plays should never lose sight of the fact that they attain complete realization only on the stage. What, then, is or might be the relevance of what we have been saying to the theater? What happens to the play if Brutus is really a rather obtuse person, if he really undergoes no definable inner conflict, if he dies unrepentant, unenlightened—unhouseled, as it were?

Well, we have a very different characterization, but I think a better one. Brutus remains ineffably noble: nothing we have said necessarily contradicts Antony's final tribute to him. Gordon Ross Smith has shown the importance of will in Brutus' character, and our reading in no way conflicts with his main thesis. But paradoxically enough, our apparently unfriendly approach to Brutus actually results in making him a more realistic, possibly even a more amiable character. Knight says (p. 81) of the traditional Brutus, “You can do nothing with him. He is so impossibly noble: and when we forget his nobility he becomes just ‘impossible’.” However, this insistent and self-righteous virtue, which would be insufferable in a person contemplative enough to evaluate his own conduct, deserves tolerance in one who is completely well-meaning, completely upright, and not very perspicuous—a rather humorless man, moreover, who takes himself too seriously to see anything funny in, for instance, the interruption of his quarrel with Cassius by the vilely-rhyming cynic Phaonius (IV. iii. 124 ff.). Such a characterization is both credible (we have all known such pillars of society) and consistent (everything Brutus does and says in the play fits in with it).

Perhaps it would be unrealistic to anticipate a commercial production of Julius Caesar with our kind of Brutus. The nature of the dramatic experience demands the involvement of the audience in the conflict. This involvement is achieved most easily through identification with a sympathetic hero, and the inward Brutus has been accepted as such a hero; arguments to the effect that Antony embodies the principle with which we should identify,33 or even that our attitude should be essentially that of an impartial observer,34 have not yet shaken the tradition.

Moreover, the political climate of the twentieth century, especially from Mussolini to McCarthy, has encouraged an anachronistic interpretation of Julius Caesar. Orson Welles adapted the play to the 1930's by making his Caesar a black-shirted dictator and his Brutus a self-sacrificing liberal. According to A. C. Sprague, in this production the last two acts were so garbled as to be virtually meaningless.35 But how could they be otherwise if the production attempted to make the play into something quite different from what Shakespeare intended? More recent criticism continues to see Brutus as “the ‘confused liberal’ of our day, struggling to make up his mind whether the use of force ever achieves anything, whether even tyranny and oppression justify murder.”36 At a time when the drama critic of one of our greatest newspapers condemns a new play because in it the liberal is not the hero but almost a villain, this interpretation of Brutus must obviously be a popular one. And yet, as we have suggested, Brutus is anything but confused; as Coleridge saw, he is not really a liberal; and as the historical tetralogy headed by Richard II makes perfectly clear, if he were a liberal, confused or not, Shakespeare would not look on him very sympathetically. How can we acknowledge Shakespeare's greatness and in the same breath insist on making his characters what the audience wants them to be, rather than what Shakespeare intended them to be?

There is no condemnation either of modern liberalism or of Shakespeare in the recognition that Brutus is not the “confused liberal” or even the tormented liberal. That simply is not the problem Shakespeare is concerned with in Julius Caesar. What he is interested in is, instead, if we must translate it into modern terms, the spectacle of the self-righteous, opinionated, humorless, intellectually limited do-gooder in public life. As Duff Cooper says, “Brutus is one of those admirable, high-minded people who happen to be always wrong”;37 with the very noblest intentions and the greatest self-esteem, he manages to wreak havoc. We have all seen him—in public life, at faculty meeting, at the P.T.A.

If Brutus were played without the customary romanticizing, played not by James Mason but by—let us say—Hiram Sherman, we might well find that one of the difficulties in the play had been resolved. Margaret Webster says that in contrast to the parts of Antony and Cassius, which are almost sure-fire, the role of Brutus is a very difficult one to bring to life.38 Surely much of this difficulty arises from the many discrepancies between what Brutus is conventionally supposed to be and what he actually says and does—from the lack of support in the text for the characterization the actor attempts to develop. Our suggested interpretation takes away these embarrassing inconsistencies and leaves the role of Brutus as a study of an interesting, credible, and coherent (if not wholly ingratiating) character whom we can observe without becoming emotionally identified with him. It would seem to be worth a try.

For us in the study and the classroom, at least, I would hope that we might drop the idea of the Hamlet-like Brutus. Like Dowden's four stages of Shakespeare's development, it makes a pretty pattern; but the characterization simply is not supported by the text of the play or by the alterations Shakespeare made in his sources.


  1. In the text and line numbering of quotations from Shakespeare I follow The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. Hardin Craig (Chicago, 1951).

  2. J. Dover Wilson apparently can conceive a Shakespeare so obtuse; he finds Brutus' speech neither inconsistent nor dishonest, because “Nowhere does Sh[akespeare] say that the money Brut[us] asks to share had been got ‘by vile means,’ though he might have avoided giving this impression, had he phrased ll. 71-5 more carefully” (Julius Caesar, ed. J. Dover Wilson [Cambridge, 1949], pp. 176-177). It seems unsound criticism to base an interpretation of a character on an assumption of carelessness on Shakespeare's part—inconsistent, too, considering that Wilson later quotes Barker approvingly: “… how much of Sh[akespeare]'s greatness lies in these little things, and in the love of his art that never found them too little for his care!” (p. 200).

  3. Plutarch, The Life of Marcus Brutus, trans. Sir Thomas North, §22, 25. My quotations from North's Plutarch are from the Shakespeare Head Press reprint, published in America by Houghton Mifflin (Boston and New York, 1928) in eight volumes; here, see VII, 139-146.

  4. Sir Mark Hunter, “Politics and Character in Shakespeare's ‘Julius Caesar’”, Transactions of the Royal Society of Literature of the United Kingdom, N.S. X (1931), 125.

  5. Brutus is said to have a “fine intellect” (G. Wilson Knight, The Imperial Theme [London, 1939], p. 95) and “sensitivity of mind” (Margaret Webster, Shakespeare Without Tears [New York, 1942], p. 210); to be “essentially a thinker” (M. W. MacCallum, Shakespeare's Roman Plays and Their Background [London, 1925], p. 238); to engage in “intimate soul-searching” (Anne Paolucci, “The Tragic Hero in Julius Caesar”, SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly], XI (1960), 332).

  6. Webster. See also Huntington Brown, “Enter the Shakespearean Tragic Hero”, Essays in Criticism, III (1953), 285-302.

  7. W. B. Otis and M. H. Needleman, An Outline-History of English Literature to Dryden (New York, 1936), p. 188. See also O. J. Campbell, The Living Shakespeare (New York, 1949), p. 699.

  8. Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare (New York, 1953 [Anchor Book edition]), pp. 144, 152.

  9. Julius Caesar “looks forward directly to Hamlet, and Brutus the Roman, reflective, scrupulous, idealistic, is related to the Dane” (William Allan Neilson and C. J. Hill, The Complete Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare [Cambridge, Mass., 1942], p. 1013). Sometimes the relationship is identified: “Brutus and Hamlet are, as it were, twin-brothers” (Israel Gollancz, ed., Shakespeare's Tragedy of Julius Caesar [London, 1903], p. ix). Others who link Brutus with Hamlet include Edward Dowden, Shakspere (New York, n.d.), pp. 54, 117; W. Warde Fowler, “The Tragic Element in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar”, in Roman Essays and Interpretations (Oxford, 1920), p. 279; Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare (Princeton, 1947), II, 357; Thomas Marc Parrott, Shakespeare: Twenty-three Plays and the Sonnets (New York, 1938), p. 633; Ernest Schanzer, “The Tragedy of Shakespeare's Brutus”, ELH, XXII (1955), 4; Van Doren, pp. 152-153; Wilson, p. xiii.

  10. Plutarch, Life of Julius Caesar, §42 (V, 340).

  11. Plutarch, Life of Julius Caesar, §42 (V, 340); compare Life of Brutus, §6 (VII, 114).

  12. I am inclined to clear Brutus of bad judgment on one count: his refusal to allow the conspirators to take an oath. Thus Hardin Craig (p. 779) accuses him of “refusing a genuine means of security in view of the importance of oaths to conspirators and the penalties which befell those who broke them”, and Knight (p. 72) thinks that “he nearly ruins his own cause” because someone “has given away details of the conspiracy to Popilius Lena and Artemidorus”. But the oath proposed is one of resolution, not of secrecy (II. i. 113, 132-140), and every conspirator carries out his assignment; so Shakespeare must have intended this detail as evidence of Brutus' high-mindedness, not of his wrong-headedness.

  13. T. M. Raysor, ed., Coleridge's Shakespearean Criticism (Cambridge, Mass., 1930), I, 16.

  14. MacCallum, p. 246.

  15. Raysor, I, 16.

  16. Bernard Breyer, “A New Look at Julius Caesar”, Essays in Honor of Walter Clyde Curry, ed. Richmond C. Beatty and others (Nashville, 1954), p. 168.

  17. Bernard Grebanier, The Heart of Hamlet (New York, 1960), p. 180.

  18. Plutarch, Life of Brutus, §4-6 (VII, 109-113).

  19. Gordon Ross Smith, “Brutus, Virtue, and Will”, SQ, X (1959), 377.

  20. Schanzer, p. 4. Knight (pp. 71-78) also sees love versus honor as the central conflict in Brutus' heart.

  21. Ernest Schanzer, “The Problem of Julius Caesar”, SQ, VI (1955), 304. Norman N. Holland also detects the application of Christ-overtones to Caesar (“The ‘Cinna’ and ‘Cynicke’ Episodes in Julius Caesar”, SQ, XI [1960], 439-444). If the Brutus-Judas association is felt, it hardly supports a love-versus-duty conflict. On the other hand, MacCallum (p. 240) explains the kiss as “the last tender farewell”.

  22. J. C. Maxwell says that the double announcement of Portia's death is accepted by most modern editors as double rescension with both versions preserved in the Folio text (“Shakespeare's Roman Plays: 1900-1956”, SS [Shakespeare Survey] 10 [1957], 3). I find this a simpler and more acceptable explanation than the ingenious ones of Warren D. Smith, “The Duplicate Revelation of Portia's Death”, SQ, IV (1953), 153-161, and Brents Stirling, “Brutus and the Death of Portia”, SQ, X (1959), 211-217. In 1962, Stirling reverses his position and offers bibliographical evidence that the duplicate account results from revision.

  23. G. R. Smith (p. 377) says, “The happiest thing about Brutus is his relationship with his wife”, pointing out that he allows her to make long speeches without interrupting. Clearly, Mr. Smith is not married. MacCallum (p. 235) says “it is to his wife that he shows the full wealth of his affectionate nature” in that he recognizes the justice of her demand to share his problems and prays to be made worthy of her. Knight (p. 72) states that the Portia-Brutus relationship reminds him of Hotspur and Lady Percy! Knight's method, however, compels him to disregard variations and shadings. To him all bears must be tempestuous, all loves identical; compare Note 24 below.

  24. Knight (p. 81) finally decides that Lucius is Brutus' “truest love”. If he is right, his discovery makes fritters out of any theory of conflict between love and duty or honor, because Brutus' “love” for Lucius does not conflict with anything at all. But surely it is a mistake to take simple kindness for love, even though simple kindness is about as close to love as Brutus comes.

  25. MacCallum (p. 244) thinks that to Brutus' ethical obligations are opposed “the more personal sentiments of love and reverence for Caesar and of detestation for the crime he contemplates”, and asserts that “Even after his decision he feels the full horror of conspiracy.” Schanzer (ELH, XXII, 5) says, “His gentle, frank, and generous nature is in revolt not only against the deed itself, but against the whole conspiracy with all the secrecy, hypocrisy, and deceitfulness that it entails.”

  26. Brents Stirling, “‘Or Else This Were a Savage Spectacle’”, PMLA, LXVI (1951), 765-774.

  27. “In the future Brutus will be disillusioned of the merit of the exploit” (MacCallum, p. 248); he “recognizes the consequences of his error” (Paolucci, p. 333); see also G. R. Smith, p. 377.

  28. It would have made an interesting scene for Shakespeare to have shown us Brutus and Cassius receiving the news of the effect of Antony's oration. Of course, he could not do so, since that would have reduced them to the stature of Sicinius and Brutus in Coriolanus, but thus we miss the one situation which might have compelled Brutus to admit his own error. On the only occasion when the forbearing Cassius, exasperated by Antony in the flyting before Philippi, throws one of his fatal mistakes up to him, Brutus is silent—whether in humility or in resentment is up to the actor and director, or to the reader.

  29. E.g., Schanzer (ELH, XXII, 11-12) holds that Brutus' torments result not from memories of the murder of his friend and benefactor, but “rather from the realization of the kind of world which he has helped to bring into being.” Compare Breyer, p. 178, and Robert Ornstein, “Seneca and the Political Drama of Julius Caesar”, JEGP [Journal of English and Germanic Philology], LVII (1958), 54.

  30. Ornstein (pp. 53-55) notes his escapist clinging to abstractions.

  31. In what seems to me to be desperation, some critics discover in the quarrel scene a revelation of Brutus' tragic disillusion (e.g., Schanzer, ELH, XXII, 12; Paolucci, p. 332). Evidently they are not deceived by Shakespeare's suggestion that the news of Portia's death has something to do with Brutus' conduct here.

  32. Plutarch, Life of Brutus, §32 (VII, 166-167). The italics are mine.

  33. Kenneth Burke, “Antony on Behalf of the Play”, The Philosophy of Literary Form (Baton Rouge, 1941).

  34. Vernon Hall, Jr., “Julius Caesar: A Play Without Political Bias”, in Studies in the English Renaissance Drama in Memory of Karl Julius Holzknecht, ed. Josephine W. Bennett and others (New York, 1959), pp. 106-124; H. W. Wilson, On the Design of Shakespearian Tragedy (Toronto, 1957), p. 97.

  35. Arthur Colby Sprague, Shakespearian Players and Performances (Cambridge, Mass., 1953), pp. 159-160.

  36. Margaret Webster, “Shakespeare in Our Time”, in The Living Shakespeare, ed. Robert Gittings (New York, 1961), p. 31. Compare John Palmer, Political Characters of Shakespeare (London, 1948), p. 1.

  37. Duff Cooper, Sergeant Shakespeare (London, 1949), p. 70.

  38. Webster, Shakespeare without Tears, p. 211.


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Julius Caesar

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.”

Patrick Carnegy (review date 4 August 2001)

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SOURCE: Carnegy, Patrick. Review of Julius Caesar.Spectator 287, no. 9026 (4 August 2001): 42-3.

[In the following review, Carnegy praises Edward Hall's 2001 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Julius Caesar, particularly its portrayal of the conspirators, rather than Caesar, as the greater threat to Rome.]

Not so long ago Ruggiero Raimondi arrived at Covent Garden to sing, as he had often done elsewhere, the title role in Verdi's Attila. An early call was to the costume department where he genially introduced himself as the Hun: ‘Well, what's it to be this time? Hitler or Mussolini?’ The same question has hovered over modern stagings of Julius Caesar going back at least as far as Death of a Dictator, Orson Welles's legendary rehash of 1937, when Caesar was indeed Mussolini and the crowd scenes Nazi rallies. Since then the Roman colossus has suffered further resurrections as General de Gaulle (RSC 1968), Fidel Castro (Miami 1986) and, played by a woman, as Margaret Thatcher (London 1993).

We may never know what temptations Edward Hall, Stratford's new director of the play, may have entertained in this area, nor are such characterisations necessarily wrong. The good news is that he's created a highly effective black-shirt atmosphere without nailing his Caesar too precisely, or his adversaries, come to that. What David Daniell, editor of the excellent new Arden edition of the play, calls its ‘mysteries and resonances’ are in no way diminished but—with the help of powerful central performances in Ian Hogg's Caesar, Greg Hicks's Brutus and Tim Pigott-Smith's Cassius—only enhanced.

Hall plunges us immediately into a rally held under the illuminated slogan, ‘Peace-Freedom-Liberty’. The song that's belted out, ‘Res publica’, expresses irreproachable republican sentiment, even if the drumming that accompanies it seems excessively strident, thus nicely setting up the ambiguities at the heart of the play.

Ian Hogg's triumphal Caesar welcomed by this assembly is no Olympian but an ebullient populist hero, as bluff and blunt in his speech as the verse allows. A character larger than life, certainly, but no obvious threat to anybody, least of all to the body politic. The emphasis is plainly that the conspirators are motivated more by jealousy of Caesar's pre-eminence than by any tangible threat to the state. All they can pin on him is his ambition to be crowned emperor, and this is unaccompanied by any overwhelming argument that citizens' rights would thereby be diminished. No, and it is the conspirators themselves who come across, quite rightly, as Rome's enemies and not at all its potential saviours. Their fatal miscalculation, of course, was to have reckoned without Antony. The production has a good touch in having Cassius, who'd correctly counselled the necessity of joining his death to Caesar's, make a lunge as if to stab Antony as he departs after Brutus's gross misjudgment in allowing him to speak at Caesar's funeral.

The casting throws up a problem with the physique of the principal conspirators, creating an awkward moment when Caesar launches out at Cassius for his ‘lean and hungry look’. For this was far more true of Greg Hicks's Brutus than of Tim Pigott-Smith's well-favoured Cassius, every inch the impatient military man and not at all the type who ‘thinks too much’. Nevertheless, Pigott-Smith's is an always credible characterisation of a role that can easily seem a parody of the wicked plotter. It is he who is the agitated one, Hicks's Brutus steely-cool save for his sudden eruption in the quarrel scene, the ice cracking to reveal the molten lava beneath.

Now stripped of the masks he had so memorably worn earlier this year for his massive double-role of Agamemnon and Priam in John Barton's Tantalus, the secret of Hicks's face is revealed. It is itself a mask, and none better moulded to our idea of the classic Roman face—a stern, self-consuming visage that twitches with the error of a single conciliatory smile as he concedes Antony's wish to speak. This is a compelling portrayal, leaving you in no doubt that a Rome ruled by such as he would be a dictatorial catastrophe. No wonder that his wife Portia—the superbly impassioned Claire Cox should have mutilated herself in despair at his secretiveness.

Tom Mannion's ruddy-cheeked Mark Antony is perhaps too much the ‘plain blunt man’ of his oratory, albeit one with superhuman imagery at his command. Bizarrely, he douses himself with blood to bring him good fortune in the games, perhaps rather too crudely prefiguring the conspirators' own bloody baptism in Caesar's corpse. But as a whole Hall's staging has a sense of concentrated purpose that was lacking in his Henry V last year. This is a richly satisfying production—clear in its exposition of the play, yet discovering much that seems fresh and arresting.

Russell Jackson (review date winter 2002)

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SOURCE: Jackson, Russell. Review of Julius Caesar.Shakespeare Quarterly 53, no. 4 (winter 2002): 536-49.

[In the following excerpted review of Edward Hall's 2002 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Julius Caesar, Jackson notes that despite Hall's “ruthless” cutting of Shakespeare's text, the director managed an effective staging by balancing ideological allusions with innovative perspectives on character.]

The seasons final main house production was Julius Caesar, directed by Edward Hall in a ruthlessly cut version that removed the first scene and all its business with the citizens, simplified the battlefield sequences, and was played without an interval. The audience was confronted with the legend “Peace. Freedom. Liberty.” projected on the back wall. As the house lights went down, the denim-jacketed soothsayer opened a trap door in the stage to produce a bleeding heart. He stood to one side—he lurked around through much of the play—as thunderous drumming, in the manner of Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, brought on a uniformed, flag-waving crowd, led by a blonde soprano, also in jackboots and black uniform, who led the company in what seemed a cross between a Latin translation of “The future belongs to us” from Cabaret and something left over from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. Those who understood it nodded their heads and smiled: the general drift was joyful anticipation of a new and more virtuous world order, in which “The republic makes us strong” and “We bring forth the new world from the ashes of the old.” There seemed to be no citizens, only storm troopers, which took Rome further than usual down the road toward a one-party state. Caesar (Ian Hogg) arrived, a stocky figure bulging with authority. Later, when he warned Antony to beware of Cassius, “For always I am Caesar” was spoken with the assurance of one who has got used to his name being a slogan. Antony, stripped for the race, knelt down and used a ladle fashioned from a femur to anoint himself messily with blood from the hole in the stage. Caesar made his reference to Calphurnia's barrenness a public pronouncement, to which she reacted with stoical composure while Portia gave her a look of fellow feeling.

In this scene Brutus (Greg Hicks) appeared extremely apt to be kindled by Cassius (Tim Piggott-Smith) and was as passionate in his anti-Caesarism as his more nervous friend. He seemed near to a nervous breakdown, unable to reconcile his principles and his personal feelings, but Hicks did nothing to make him lovable or sympathetic. In the tent, Cassius's generous apology for his “rash humor” was treated dismissively. (It recalled the harshest version of this passage I have seen, in which John Wood, in Trevor Nunn's 1972 RSC production, left Patrick Stewart on his knees with open tunic and proffered sword, and calmly went round the tent tidying up the mess made by Cassius's tantrum. “Chide when you will …” was resigned and utterly patronizing in its flatness of tone.) In the final reckoning Brutus's self-absorption and pride put his claims to superior “nobility” in question. The production offered a new balance of the affections shown in the play—on one level a male political tragedy of love—and Tom Mannion as Antony made his regard for Caesar more evident than any Machiavellian political skill. The funeral orations were delivered to the audience as if to the people of Rome, with the actors spread throughout the auditorium, ready to bawl and bang on bits of scaffolding in a suitably threatening manner until Antony first tamed them into mourning, then roused them to mutiny.

R. J. Kaufmann and Clifford J. Ronan (essay date spring 1970)

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SOURCE: Kaufmann, R. J., and Clifford J. Ronan. “Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: An Apollonian and Comparative Reading.” Comparative Drama 4, no. 1 (spring 1970): 18-51.

[In the following excerpt, Kaufmann and Ronan discuss Julius Caesar as a sustained study of the limits and tragic potentiality of Stoic constancy.]

My enemies are those who want to destroy without creating their own selves.


A man's virility lies more in what he keeps to himself than in what he says.


All crimes, so far as guilt is concerned, are completed even before the accomplishment of the deed.



Peter S. Anderson's brilliant essay in a recent issue of this journal advanced discussion of Julius Caesar to a new level of methodological sophistication.1 His working out, through intelligent deployment of structuralist techniques, of a “metonymic epistemology of sacrifice” must be studied in toto and attentively to appreciate its rich critical dividends. The essay charts the mythopeic infrastructure of the play better than this has ever been done. He transposes into discursive language something of the wonderful polyphony of the play, its interplay of mutually qualifying analogues from different planes of abstraction. Numerous critics have felt, but they have not been able to annotate convincingly, the special poetic of Julius Caesar. They have sensed its crucial intermediary role as a bridge between the painterly and rhetorical modes of the plays of the 90's and the deeper reaching verbal and psychological dynamics of the sequence of Shakespeare's greatest plays which follow it. But much of their commentary has been negative, as, e.g., in observing Caesar's relative lack of imagery; or they have swallowed the bait of ideology and ethical analysis and lost the play's tonal shading in the process.

Anderson by applying pre-modern modes of constitutive thinking—specifically those of Levi-Strauss when mapping the non-Kantian modalities of The Savage Mind—has rehabilitated what we would call the “prismatic capacities” of the late-medieval-cum-renaissance mind, at least as these are ideally typified by the instrument we know as Shakespeare's imagination. With Julius Caesar as his text, Anderson articulates the patterns of substitution and displacement (not just words for words, but of words for things or agents, of events for metaphors, and in all possible qualitative permutations) which are refracted through this prismatic logic. This is valuable, and the exegetical dividends are impressive, but his excitement in his discovery is also great; so, our praise is not seasoned when we say that, occasionally “the frame devours the picture.” Hence, he stimulates further discussion, for as he says himself in one of many passages of telling generalization:

Julius Caesar is not a closed field. The Shakespearean play, even if it is, as here, a sort of “maimed ritual,” is not an hermetically sealed torture chamber in which the audience undergoes what is undergone. The play opens from and onto a public life outside itself in which the audience once moved, will again move, and even in experiencing the play, moves. There is not so much suspension of disbelief during the play as there is participation in the larger life through the play. Drama is a form of participation, and surely Brutus, perhaps above all other characters, elicits our response to life outside the play.

(pp. 16-17)

This is well said and pertinent to an adequate response to the specialized tone of Julius Caesar. So is his earlier more arguable statement that “Stoicism is no more than a dialect of sacrificial language.” Anderson's placing of the play as particularly “open” in its inertial movement; his classification of Stoicism as “no more than” a subset of his central organizing paradigm, sacrifice; and his choice of Brutus as the figure through whom we gain access to the play's outward reaching orbits of connotation promote concentration on the play's vital core; they also invite recourse to a method consonant with his own but, more comparative and less subject to virtuoso overdevelopment than his mythopeic approch. The essay which follows is intended as an Apollonian complement to his essentially Dionysian reading of Julius Caesar. Any Apollonian reading must be sensitive to a number of different normative manifolds within which any particular art-product is placed. Without trying to be exhaustive, we will therefore take up along with the ordering principles of the text itself several related but distinctive aspects of the play's contextual position: in the creative continuum of Shakespeare's work; in the emergent tradition of Roman plays; in late Elizabethan cultural revision of ethical imperatives; and in the perennial role of drama as form of iconographic philosophizing.


Anderson's essay concludes with an almost undeniable assertion:

We can no longer content ourselves … with asking if the murder of Caesar was per se abominable, or if love, honor, rebellion, ambition are perjorations or eulogia of mankind. For the language we have heard (itself conceptual) and the spectacle we have seen (itself perceptual) have dramatized a mythos.

(p. 25)

What he rejects here is readings of the play as a medley of topoi, of isolable sections, scenes, intermingled biographies, and atomistic appraisals of virtues and of the agents who possess or lack them. This is in our view correct; we've had too many of these. Yet, Julius Caesar has certain properties which make this kind of critical misbehavior more likely than in discussing any other Shakespearean play. Again and again scenes are organized like painters' compositions or sculptors' groupings. When the action moves it is as if it were formally choreographed. The principal characters come on (or are revealed) in studied postures; they strike attitudes; they classify themselves; they await their individual fates. Throughout there is a form of “kinetic visualization” by which we are made to feel the slow pull of emotional experiences of the highest specific gravity: indecision; curdled envy; deliberate self-incitement; the lonely burdens of insomnia; the ventriloqual commands of stylized inner voices; the solemnly rehearsed charade of Caesar's “foolery” in refusing the crown; the self-investiture with an activist persona by the meditative Brutus; Portia's hypnotic pursuit of stoical credentials; laggard rhythms of spiritual fatigue; the muted dirge of sedated grief. This is not an ordinary spectrum of dramatic emotions. The grammar of self-control is not, any more than the discipline (as in Zen practice or stoic) of spiritual composure, a tractably conventional dramatic subject. Yet when the play is well performed emotion swirls up through fissures in the play's surface; Julius Caesar is not hectic, but the play succeeds.

For Stoicism is at the same time a histrionic and a sedative ethic. In its cultivation of a superior and impervious passivity Stoicism is as Anderson claims a “dialect of sacrifice,” for there is in Stoicism a strong and not wholly persuasive infusion of cultural “sour grapes” whereby the excluded earn victory over the privileged by denying the contest itself—a category shift unilateral but not truly independent. What is left out of this reading, however, is what makes Stoicism dramatic. It is not the loathsome, self-eulogizing priggery of the orthodox stoic which can be effectively dramatized; George Chapman made this mistake several times. What is dramatic is the heroic excess in stoic discipline itself and its correlative demands for self-reimbursement through praise from initiates who know the serio-comic agon of self-control. Stoicism is a form of acting.

In the most likely chronology of Shakespeare's plays, we can see Twelfth Night as the comic twin of Julius Caesar, as A Midsummer Night's Dream is of Romeo and Juliet. As the “twin” metaphor suggests both sets of plays share a repertoire of themes, though they develop them differently as the differing tonal range of their respective genres requires. Twelfth Night shares with Julius Caesar a dissatisfaction, almost a disillusionment, with self-confining role-playing; both offer virtuoso opportunities for posturing; and both are educative and corrective in their movement. With elegance and decorum each play scrutinizes morbidities of manner; each arrives at a point where we (though not always the characters themselves) learn: “It won't work.” Both plays are very pragmatic appraisals of excessive stylization of life and mood, of miscasting and over-acting. That one measures tragic consequences and the other the lesser weight of folly should not distract us from what they hold firmly in common. Both plays are diagnostic ventures into the mysteries of the sick-ego, while neither sinks to the univocal level of direct satire. There is a tempering respect in Shakespeare's attitude towards his materials which preserves dignity in the tragic and gaiety in the comic play.

There is further critical purchase to be gained from this collocation. In the manner of comedy generally and preëminently in the instance of Twelfth Night the audience is invited to study shadings of a central quality, or to compare variant forms of a central theme. We adapt easily to the ensemble phenomenon in comedy, but when we encounter an extension of it into tragedy we resist its critical implications. Julius Caesar is an ensemble play with at least six roles which are arguably major and a larger number which are exacting and more than incidentally contributory to Shakespeare's enlargement of his analysis. At the same time, no single character dominates the whole sweep of the action. From its almost too studiously composed first scene onwards, Julius Caesar is obsessively concerned with its complex organizing pun on “mending of soles” (souls; spirits) which is the verbal focus of this first scene. Cobblers or “botchers” catch up in the contrary connotations of their name the ambiguity of the mender's role and of our longing for and suspicion of saviours. The initial evocation of cobbling partly prejudges the play's tone. Less dignified than its medical analogue of healing, which is applied later in the play, it is wholly unsinister and suggests incapacity rather than vicious intent. In its aura of homeliness and the humble, it touches a note of bathos which is also a feature of the play. Brutus is hobbled by a kind of plain-minded density which, while not without its virtuous implications, makes him a “botcher” (a bungler) whose ponderous imagination never really circumscribes the issues. A mistaker of parts for wholes, he is historically myopic. We intend no slur when we say he would be translated graphically if wearing thick glasses. Thus the moral picture he composes is scrupulously draughted, but it has no environment, no perspectival inclusiveness. If a morally renovating tableau is to be properly composed it must “read” persuasively. But Brutus's vision comprises only neatly diagrammed iconographic personifications within the huge Rubens-like, swirling mural of historical change offering spasmodic cues to flexible opportunists who adapt to its multiple perspectives.

The tone of Julius Caesar is critically determined by the subtle but consistent incongruities of agent to aphorism, evaluation to speaker—a kind of pervasive botchery of judgment. Look for example at the play's most quoted lines:

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.


These lines, so sacred to the anthological mind, are a form of ironic epitaph for Brutus's hopes rather than the advertisement of his practical insight which, out of context, they seem to be. The mild argument of the secondary conspirators (II.i.101-111) over the direction of the sun's rising is exactly parallel to the conspirators' perceptual confusions in The Tempest (II.i.52-59) where they cannot reach unanimity about the color of the grass. In both contexts the contrived scene denies unanimity of motive at the same time that it exposes to doubt the objectivity of moral vision.

If Matthew Arnold's emblem of spiritual health, Sophocles, “Who saw life steadily, and saw it whole,” is an acceptable index, then Julius Caesar is a virtual chrestomathy of failures in objectivity: Cinna's murder; Cassius's mistaken reading of Titinius's movements on the battlefield at Philippi, where after acknowledging “My sight was ever thick,” Cassius takes his own life wrongly “imagining” (i.e., trusting the form of “sight” afforded by inner fantasy over optical evidence from the world of extension) that the disasters he has secretly feared have now materialized—his epitaph spoken by Titinius is a dismayed, “Alas, thou hast misconstrued everything” (V.iii.21, 84); Caesar's misevaluation of Decius, of the Soothsayer, and indeed, of Brutus himself; Antony's bland and dismissive underestimation of Cassius; and, so comprehensively it is easy to overlook, Brutus's mis-estimation of his own immunity, through private rectitude, to the damaging effects of the “ritual” execution of Caesar.

In modern terms, Brutus' rationalist ethic denies the wilderness of irrational feeling—symptomized by his insomnia, his vulnerability to hallucinations and, above all, by a gradual leakage of his vitality—surrounding the neatly fabricated moral edifice within which his spirit has domiciled itself. It is easy to multiply evidence from Shakespeare's text of pervasive implantation of homologous expressions for this disease of subjectivity. It is crucial, however, that this not be misread as an unsympathetic, satiric indictment of faults discoverable in Roman figures distanced from us by outmoded error and historical time. The tone of the play is otherwise. It is diagnostic, patient and gently disenchanted.

In our present climate of tolerant enlightment towards the mentally ill, with all our humane efforts to temper uniformed judgments of behaviour distorted by neurosis and improper education it is strange that we should abandon this perspective when confronted by a pioneering instance of its imaginative annotation in Julius Caesar. If we look at the play not through disciplinary or self-righteous eyes but through the diagnostic lens ground by Shakespeare, we can share his exciting effort to comprehend the consequences of a self-imposed disease called Stoicism. From this angle of vision we are obliged to recall that tragedy is never perfectly compatible with morality. To act is to falsify the self, especially if a given morality of self requires preservation of technical innocence. The Stoics respected, even revered, technical innocence—all that could preserve the vigilant self from unwitting collaboration with myriad enemies contagiously surrounding it in hostium terra, which was their name for the actual world at our disposal when we act and choose.


In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare for the first time moves beyond the pathos of inwardness as in Richard II; the pathos of victimization as in Romeo and Juliet; the pathos of self-enclosing resentment as in Richard III into a more generously conceived and therefore morally ambiguous world, where tragic complexities are incubated. The ethical mathematics of Julius Caesar reaches far beyond the simple computations of Tudor poetic justice to a distributive mode in which every member of the world of the play is transvalued as a result of the play's central action, Brutus's decision to step from the private world, in which his ethic is just and right, into the public realm, where as Goethe said to Eckermann,

Everything we do has a result. But that which is right and prudent does not always lead to good, nor the contrary to what is bad.

To an extraordinary degree it remains difficult to make confident assignments of blame and praise, or of good and bad to any isolable action in Julius Caesar. And this is why the play stands astride the deep gulf between Shakespeare's gifted earlier and his wholly mature work. If the play which immediately precedes it in Shakespeare's canon, Henry V, is clearly dedicated to the ceremonial externalities of patriotism, Julius Caesar is as clearly devoted to the inner tensions produced by and the inner costs of seeking deep concord between action and the promptings of that same ideal. Brutus dies pro patria as certainly as those of Henry's “Happy Few” who did not return from Agincourt, but if this is certain, all the rest is not so certain.

The only act in the play that might be labelled unequivocally evil is Antony's selfish incitement of the mob to a violence whose mindless horror is embodied in bestial dismemberment of a living human body, because the mob finds a hated name, Cinna, attached to it. Yet, Antony proceeds immaculately through the play to stand over Brutus's corpse and speak literature's most dignified epitaph. Cassius's Iagoesque promptings of Brutus, and rancorous hatred of Caesar coexist with a nature feminine in its capacities for tenderness and solicitude. Portia steps from her historical niche as her father Cato's symbolic heiress into a role streaked with ambiguities, wherein she is equally noble and foolish. She patiently endures self-inflicted wounds but lacks the larger patience which can suffer and wait. Her suicide like Cassius's is the product of an over-active imagination and a morbid one. Yet, what she represents to Brutus must be assigned a very high valence to account for his actions on hearing of her death. To a remarkable extent, Julius Caesar is “about” the problems of spiritual economy—of dealing with one's self—although the manifest content of the play is political. The various intersections of psychic and political control are dramatized and mutually evaluated. This apparent divergence is the very strength of the play, since, as tragedy, it seeks to knit together moral realms distorted by axiological separation in formal political and ethical writings respectively. The worlds of the great 16th century moralists and of the emergent analysts of Realpolitik, lacked a set of common denominators which Shakespearean tragic drama provides. The play gives a needed frame to neo-stoic depictions of self-preserving moral postures; it also restores a moral inner dimension to Machiavellian tactical description.

A great deal has been written about the role played by stoical doctrines in Elizabethan drama.2 Nowhere, however, has a larger structural evaluation of this been made. Elizabethan drama in toto comprises a major ethical, even a religious inquest. It is not pretentious to claim for it status as an epistemological and ontological enquiry. Working in terms of the plastic philosophizing of the dramatic form in which many competing points of view—and many discrete elements—can be activated and set in qualifying relationship to each other in a manner more flexible than is possible in discursive prose because this is tied to its inherited theorems, playwrights dissatisfied with received conjunctions of name and object, gesture and value, emblem and caption can seek new more satisfying alignments of action and meaning. Stoic doctrine was drawn close to Christian passive virtue in Renaissance moralizing, until through the amassed power and reiteration of what could be called Tudor Paideia they constituted a prescriptive orthodoxy of moral feeling. The Elizabethan drama—in its ideological workings—can be seen as a Reformation testing and critique of this program, mainly from a moderate but acute Erasmian position.

Hence, in Julius Caesar, when Shakespeare undertakes a nearly systematic analysis of Stoic constancy and its surrounding constellation of supportive virtues, he is partly clearing ground for the more open-hearted and bold-spirited inquest into the sustaining values of mankind we find in the mature tragedies of the ensuing years. He has to expose the insufficiency of Brutus' claims to possess already what Shakespeare knew was still to be sought: the formula for self-knowledge.3Nosce Te Ipsum is the unfailing lodestar of Renaissance moral programs. Brutus' life provided the best articulated exemplum of self-knowledge of any classic political leader; his case needed to be examined. But, the aim of the play is not grossly satiric. Brutus is not exposed as a crass or vicious man. In fact the entire strategy of the play contradicts such conclusions. But he is self-deceived; his ethical reach is far exceeded by the consequences he nobly but misguidedly sets in motion. He is not subverted as a man, but as the linchpin of an ethical system with extravagant and unjustified claims, he is discredited. Reality, as Shakespeare clearly knew, is more complex than the Stoics with their unrealistic and world weary undervaluations of power and privilege could register.

Julius Caesar like Hamlet is frequently in the interrogative mood. A troubled catechism, it puts questions to the mysteries of will, of auctoritas and of charisma. When near the end of his self-lacerating tirade against Caesar's pretensions, Cassius asks the apparently rhetorical question,

Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that ‘Caesar’?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?


he is asking a question about “being” and one about “meaning” without finding any way to relate these two different orders of things. As a victim of envy, Cassius can not bring his mind to a state of repose in the area of public assent or judgment. As Caesar says of him, he is “a great observer” who “looks quite through the deeds of men.” There are complications in this, for when tragic drama matures it too can “look quite through the deeds of men.” Conventional collocations of gesture and meaning are subjected to scrutiny, until it is no longer possible to say whether political greatness lies in the apparent object or in its “unfolded” inner workings; or whether greatness is a psycho-cultural penumbra both recognized in and bestowed upon the object by observers more naive and selfless than Cassius? Rephrased, Cassius's basic question about Caesar might run, “What is the anatomy of charisma?” It is too much to say that Julius Caesar answers this question, but it confronts it.

Thus Julius Caesar more than any other of Shakespeare's tragedies is an enquiry into the elemental constituents of greatness, and an impressively exact dramatic analysis of the emotional pathology of those who are nearly great. Caesar's greatness is an historical donnée of the play. In fact, it may well be the major defect of the play that this received greatness is merely imputed as seemingly beyond need of demonstration. To an unusual extent the central platform of the action is History, as characters with varying personal credentials elect themselves or are drafted to assume Historical Roles. Strong and explicit support for these observations is supplied by Shakespeare's text.

Many readers, coming to Julius Caesar after studying highly imagistic later plays, improperly conclude that this tragedy has few if any important iterated figures. Though we believe that significant patterns of imagery (particularly in the references to and spectacles of blood plus fire, stone plus metal) appear in the play, we see the incandescent central figure as that of “moving” or motivating one's self and others. This figure is not materialistic in reference, nor can it be referred to separable inner qualities as in many of Shakespeare's plays; it refers to political process in its most intimate ethical phase. The range of this process is considerable and runs from persuasion through flattery to imaginative bullying or domination. In terms of Shakespeare's own ordering of his Roman material, the play tests constancy. At this crucial level of organization it is a detailed and sophisticated study of the properties of human will and of the will's power to deflect or, conversely, to sanctify declared purposes. Thus Cassius incessantly tries to “move” Brutus; Antony is the master tactician of forensic “moving” through eloquent demagogery; Caesar, like Tamburlaine, prides himself on his perfect constancy, which is to say, his immunity to the manipulative pressures exerted by wills other than his own; Brutus's troubled colloquies with himself are quests for an Archimedean point of leverage from which he can “move” himself. A closer appraisal of the play within the context of the Elizabethan rehabilitation of romanitas will enlarge and document these contentions.


Julius Caesar is concerned with the fate of a country, hence its method of revealing motives is specialized. Tonally, it subordinates its ironies to the heroic, thus creating a mode of paradoxically heroic tragedy. Its ground tone is neither satiric nor one of heroic laudation, but one in which heroism is accepted as an authentic category but subject, by the very nature of its mandates, to complex ironic reservations. Shakespeare does not inflict upon the experiences of the play the satiric reduction that marks a play like Troilus and Cressida; rather he recognizes and exposes the ironic limitations of a prescriptive heroic program. Critics who have been aware of these structural ironies have over-reacted to them and have concluded that Julius Caesar is to be read as having an anti-heroic comic stress like Henry IV or as a satiric and absurdist analogy to Troilus and Cressida.4 This is to employ an impatient reductionism and to strip the play of its poised management of a pattern of sympathies which is tragic in a special way we are concerned to annotate. For, Julius Caesar fulfills the heuristic function of tragedy and should be judged by its responsible, controlled exploration of the tragic network of relationships of men with self, others, and with the received, ideological environment. By comparison with later tragedies, the coolly classical Julius Caesar is less analytical in its method of exploring the relational gaps between intention and performance. Hence, it contains little that corresponds to the articulate, final epiphanies of Othello or Macbeth, or of the less direct self-recognition of Coriolanus.5 Its figures are contextually evaluated, weighed pragmatically in terms of their terminal gestures, or summarized rhetorically after the fact as figures who have been converted to the symbolhood enjoined by their historical actuality and by the cultural distillation they have undergone.

The impact of all plays is partly residual or delayed and partly synchronic with performance. The unbroken record of stage-popularity of Julius Caesar, and its own special beauty and delicacy, significantly derives from its unthreatening tone, its buffered idiom, and its consequent exceptional dependence on residual impact on the “beating mind.” The audience's response is more delayed than immediate to this tragic contemplation of Romans pursuing their inner needs and social ideals in a community whose ethic promoted such yearnings even as its structure frustrated them.

The force of the play lies of course not only in the dramatist's handling of these “yearnings” but also in his very choice of them. They are lofty ideals and ones centrally desired by thoughtful spectators in 1599: post-medieval, virtually post-Christian yearnings for the models which pagan Stoic Rome could provide of personal integration, humanistic civilization and social stability.

The original spectators watching Julius Caesar in 1599 would be familiar with Stoical ideas not only by reason of non-dramatic influences (particularly Erasmus and Lipsius)6 but also because of a dramatic tradition with a decade or more's standing. At its inception, this Stoic dramatic tradition consisted of at least two interdependent features: 1) a new interest in basically heroic stoical acts, particularly suicide, and 2) a tendency to call the agents of these acts “constant,” “resolute,” and Roman or Roman-like.

Prior to Julius Caesar suicide had been treated as basically unstoical and unheroic in almost all the extant plays except the pseudo-Senecan Hercules Oetaeus, the Kyd-Garnier Cornelia, and two stage-plays written around 1588, Marlowe's Tamburlaine and Lodge's Wounds of Civil War. Otherwise, in most of Seneca's own plays7 and those of Garnier and his sixteenth century English translators and imitators8 as well as in most other English non-Roman plays of the time, attitudes towards suicide tended to be sentimental, negative, confused or awkwardly suggestive of a residual Christian and irreconcilably medieval revulsion at this “desperate” rejection of the hope (espoir) of God's grace. From the suicide situations in Marlowe's Dido,9The Misfortunes of Arthur,10Romeo and Juliet,11 Wilmot's 1591 version of Tancred and Gismund,12 and Kyd's Spanish Tragedy,13 there emerges hardly more of Stoical heroism than from medieval dramatic suicides14 and the titular characters' suicides in the early Elizabethan Apius,15Jocasta,16 and Gismond.17

When used in senses wider than that of sexual fidelity, “constancy” and other allied words are unfailingly popular features of the stage-descriptions of stoical behavior, particularly stoical Roman or romanized18 behavior in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The causes for this sudden orthodoxy of stage practice are difficult to discriminate fully and certainly. The late sixteenth century English interest in Stoic-influenced writers like Plutarch19 and Montaigne, in Seneca, and in Seneca's Renaissance follower Lipsius, whose Two Bookes of Constancie was published in England in 1594,20 spurred a tendency of the dramatists to make a four-way identification between stoic, constant, heroic, and Roman behavior. Glimpses of this tendency, which can be seen in Tamburlaine (where it could conceivably have started) are absolutely unmistakable in a work printed in 1594 but probably written at about the same time as Tamburlaine: namely, Thomas Lodge's Wounds of Civil War. Plays written or translated between the late 1580's (the date most commonly assigned Wounds and Tamburlaine) and Shakespeare's Julius Caesar occasionally show faint signs of the tendency to make this same identification: the Kyd-Garnier Cornelia (c. 1594),21 Daniel's Cleopatra (c. 1594);22 the anonymous Caesar's Revenge (c. 1595);23 and Latin comedy Laelia (c. 1595),24 which unlike the other three has an Italian rather than a Roman setting. But it is not until after the time of Julius Caesar that there are unmistakable signs that this four-way identification has been confidently assimilated into the Elizabethan dramatic tradition.25 For even Shakespeare shows few signs of knowing of this identification when he writes his first Roman play, Titus Andronicus,26 which, though probably written in the late 1580's, was first printed in the crucial year for the interest in Roman Stoicism, 1594.

The earliest Roman history play extant, Thomas Lodge's The Wounds of Civil War (pub. 1594; ed. Joseph W. Houpert, 1969), devotes as much attention to the Wonders of Roman Constancy as to the Wounds of Civil War. With the inconsequential exception of one minor character (Carinna), every one of the long list of upper-class characters in danger of dying illustrates the maxim “even in death most courage doth appear” (IV.i.23).

The heroic suicide of Lodge's Young Marius is crucial to the plot as well as to the twin themes of Constancy and Civil War. Disregarding the historical testimony of the chief source of the play (Appian) as to Young Marius' “Crueltie”27 and terrified suicide (he “hidde himselfe in a Cave” or underground ditch28), Lodge makes the youth a patriotic idealist and gives him a composed, almost operatic, suicide on the battlements before throngs of friends and enemies. Furthermore the reporting of this stunning event to Sulla is made the turning point in the play. For upon hearing of Young Marius' fate, Sulla quickly moves from momentary laughter to deep contemplation and on to the uncharacteristic—and totally unhistorical—religious mood with which his life and the play ends.

Lodge, excessively careful to be clear, makes almost everyone involved in Young Marius' death reiterate the words “constant” or “resolute.” The youth himself boasts, “My resolution shall exceed” Fortune's power (V.ii.20), and his followers announce that they are “resolv'd” (V.iii.41) to join him in death. When killing himself, Young Marius says to the opposing Sullan general:

Farewell, Lucretius, first I press in place,
                                                                                                    Stab[s himself].
To let thee see a constant Roman die.


Lucretius bursts out with the words, “A wondrous and bewitched constancy” (1.94), and hurries to report to Sulla that Young Marius “with more constancy than Cato died” (V.v.57). Immediately Sulla exclaims, “What, constancy, and but a boy? … But let us have this constancy describ'd” (11.57, 59). Lucretius then recounts how Young Marius and his friends armed themselves with “worthy resolution” (1.74) and “constancy and courage” (1.66). This story then prompts Sulla to plan his escape from “Inconstant chance” (1.102).

Of the dramatist's many preparations for this constancy episode, the most remarkable is the totally fictitious encounter of Marius with “Cornelia” and “Fulvia” (for so Lodge, on no authority, names Sulla's wife and daughter). These two ladies, while planning to escape imprisonment through defiant suicide (“our constant ends,”—IV.i.375), mouth such thematically important phrases as, “We wait our ends with Roman constancy” (1.335) and “constant Roman hearts” (1.357). Marius responds in kind, congratulating them for being “resolute to die” (1.382) and, twice, for possessing suicidal “constancy” (11.330, 353). The treatment of Roman Constancy in Lodge's piece is inescapable, and serves as the most obvious dramatic model for the inspired variations that Shakespeare was to play on that theme in 1598 or 1599.


It is impossible to tell whether the 1623 Folio Julius Caesar, the sole authoritative text, is a revision by Shakespeare or is substantially the play he wrote in 1598 or 1599. In any case, the work is a painstaking and powerful narrative investigation of the psychological and moral implications of living under the twin Roman ideals so frequently discussed in the Renaissance: stony constancy29 and fiery spirit.

Behind the Renaissance notion of stoical Roman coldness, which is realized in Julius Caesar most clearly by verbal and presentational images of statuary, lie Erasmian influences and the growing Renaissance familiarity with specimens of actual Roman sculpture. Anson informatively points to Erasmus' caricature of the Stoic model as a “stony semblance of a man,” “no more moved” by his emotions “than if he were a flint or rock” (The Praise of Folly, tr. John Wilson, 1688). Critics who speak like Dowden of Julius Caesar as a “gallery of antique sculpture”30 make a richly instructive error of interpretation. For the chief Romans of the play think they might resemble statues, stones, metal, and other hard, cold objects. Most of the aristocrats strive less to be gods than to be solid, “constant” inanimate things; for they regard such a condition as central to the functioning of a stoical, soldierly, administrative Roman. Yet the commoners, wiser, more irresponsible, and less histrionic than their noble counterparts, resist their own adoption of this ideal mercilessly, while tolerating and applauding it in their supposed betters. Melting in shame at the charge of being “blocks” and “stones,” the “basest metal” of the plebeians is changed to “tears” that flow into the Tiber (I.i.40-66). In the Forum the commoners again respond on cue: when Antony claims that a good eulogist would make “The stones of Rome to rise and mutiny,” the citizens shout, “We'll mutiny,” and call for “fire” with which to “burn all” (III.ii.234; III.iii.41).

The noble Romans are excessively concerned with statues, mistaking themselves and one another for the materials or products of the sculptor. Brutus, who in an analogous figure will identify himself as the “flint” in a tinder-box (IV.iii.111-113), is introduced as a “firm” man of honorable metal-mettle who may nevertheless be “wrought” into ignoble shapes (I.ii.313-316). Cassius is confident that Brutus will keep his eye out for messages affixed to “old Brutus' statue” (I.iii.146), and the mob senses that this chief conspirator would not be unpleased to have “a statue with his ancestors” (III.ii.55). Caesar, who wanted his “images” decked with holiday attire (I.ii.290; I.i.73), is almost as angry at seeing them stripped as at losing his precious crown. He identifies himself implicitly with those cold statues no less than, later, with the “northern star” (III.i.60). Shakespeare's Cassius, unlike his counterpart in any of the ancient histories, is haunted by Caesar in the shape of a “Colossus” (I.ii.136). More significant still, Shakespeare's Calphurnia envisions her husband as a bleeding “statua” (II.ii.76), although Plutarch expressly reports that she dreamed only of a portentous break in an “ornament” distinguishing her husband's house (Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, V, 83). Fittingly, then, in his death scene Caesar reclines in a bloody but statuesque pose, in “ruins” (III.i.256) beneath the bleeding image of his defeated rival:

                                                  in his mantle muffling up his face,
Even at the base of Pompey's statua,
Which all the while ran blood, great Caesar fell.


The play's imagery of cold stoniness is frequently punctuated by the very important imagery of stony fieriness. But genuine coalescence of these two imagistic strains is so rare that when it is realized, as in the Quarrel Episode, it is gratefully welcomed by the audience. Then, through Brutus' self-description, the playwright reveals his basal structuring of all the noble Roman psyches and their predicaments.

O Cassius, you are yoked with a lamb
That carries anger as the flint bears fire;
Who, much enforced, shows a hasty spark,
And straight is cold again.


Several inferences should be drawn from these lines. The Romans' desire, most prominent in Brutus, for lamb-like gentleness (the opposite of bloody wolfishness, a trait elsewhere in the play and in Renaissance literature associated with the Romans31), is tragically irreconcilable with their more dominant goal of metamorphosis into “cold,” spark-giving “flint.” A noble Roman desires to possess the hardness and coldness of flint along with its capacity, when “enforced” by hard metal, to give off fire. Lastly, Brutus' or another Roman's “hasty spark” is of no importance unless he “shows” it.32 For the play frequently indicates Roman concern with public self-verification through histrionic “show.” Without listing the many obvious examples of this in the actions of Caesar, Brutus, and Antony, we would call special attention to Brutus' first scene, where this trait is established through verbal iteration. The conversation with Cassius begins with Brutus' apology for forgetting the “shows of love to other men” (I.ii.46). Midway in the conversation Cassius, defining his and Brutus' relationship as that between portions of an apparently functional tinder-box, congratulates himself on having “struck but thus much show of fire from Brutus” (l. 177). Brutus fails in self-criticism. Apparently ignoring the possible inadequacy of his own “flint” and the implication that his “fire” is merely ornamental, he tacitly accepts Cassius's definitions and criticizes the so-called games of Caesar and Antony. Brutus and other noble Romans in the tragedy are characteristically more able to detect “shows” in one another than in themselves.

The justly popular Quarrel Episode (IV. ii and iii) is an emblem-in-action of Roman strivings after the appearance and reality of fiery constancy. We have the testimony of Leonard Digges, who, when praising his contemporary's total literary achievement, twice singles out this episode (E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare, II, 231-233).

[When] on the Stage at halfe-sword parley were,
Brutus and Cassius: oh how the Audience,
Were ravish'd, with what wonder they went thence,
When some new day they would not brooke a line,
Of tedious (though well laboured) Catilines;
Sejanus too was irkesome.

(Shakespeare's Poems, 1640)

                    till I heare a Scene more nobly take,
Then when thy half-Sword parlying Romans spake,
Till these, till any of thy Volumes rest
Shall with more fire, more feeling be exprest,
Be sure, our Shake-speare, thou canst neuer dye.

(First Folio)

“Fire” and ‘nobility’ are what the spectators encountered; ‘ravishing’ “wonder” is what they carried away with them.

What Digges and the audience responded to in IV.ii and iii, was the dynamism and dignity of the clash between the two fatigued Romans. This dynamism (while preventing the scene from becoming “tedious” and “irkesome”) more positively resulted from the saturated aggression of the two major characters tottering on the brink of a moral outburst of emotion, while forestalling it. Shakespeare learned the lesson so ignored by Tudor drama that superficial sword-clattering stage violences convey intense passion less well than agonies of restraint. The dignity which made this complex scene nobly take derives not so much from the formalized nobility of the sentiments as from the fact that both men are visibly cultivating constancy, and thus showing how they can harness their awakened and threatening passions. Digges and the audience could have recognized in the scene their age's picture of aristocratic Roman behavior—contentiously proud, and yet perilously constant or restrained; martial, vengeful, even philistine, and yet devoted to pacific, civilized ideals of brotherhood and honesty. The inner excitement of the play derives from Shakespeare's power of placing us exactly at those points where rancor, envy, cupidity, and power-lust are incubating, like the serpent in the egg. The play provides, for the first time in Shakespeare's development, large-scale and immediate poetic access to emergent, as distinguished from tabulated, passion.

Constancy, the shell where passion incubates in Julius Caesar, is lapidary, and far more brittle than that of a serpent's egg. The motif of constancy in this drama is conveyed not only by imagery of hard, cold substances but also, as in Lodge's Wounds of Civil War, by iteration of the words “constant,” “resolute,” and their cognates. Such verbal references occur in Julius Caesar in greater numbers than they do in any other Shakespeare play except 3 Henry VI. Also as in Lodge's drama, the constancy theme is firmly centered around minor characters before being made to radiate to other more important figures in the play.

An important, but seldom noticed function of Portia in Julius Caesar is to provide, in propria persona or indirectly, occasions to probe the workings of Roman constancy. Suicide is potentially the most dignified act in the Roman stoic repertory. Her “Impatient” (IV.iii.152) suicide operates like a foil, calling to mind that of her heroic father, Cato, and preparing artistically for the tragic deaths of Brutus, Cassius, and Titinius. Further by having the news of Portia's death announced in the Quarrel Episode, Shakespeare reveals an intention to dramatize Brutus' aspiration towards patient, carefully wrought stoic constancy: Brutus characterizes himself as the equal of any man in “bear[ing] sorrow” (IV.iii.147); Messala exclaims, “Even so great men great losses should endure (l. 191); and Cassius reflects that Brutus' responses witness the triumph of “art” over “nature” (ll. 193-194). When Portia herself appears, she awaits the news of the assassination quite nervously (II.iv), despite those pretensions to manlike constancy that were emphasized a short while before (II.i.). This woman was once able to induce sufficient constancy to undergo a quasi-suicide and give herself a “voluntary wound” (II.i.300). Now she is barely able to withhold the conspiracy from the Soothsayer, her servant, and all Rome. Shakespeare devises numerous strategies to expose the ad hoc, or self-exhausting, nature of Stoic composure. Portia's tragic pretensions almost become a laboratory exhibit under Shakespeare's sympathetic but undeceived scrutiny.

Almost all of the incidents and speeches in the Portia story are taken directly from Plutarch. Yet Shakespeare concentrates, intensifies, and enriches the implications of the Plutarchan version. The audience is given a sense, for example, that Portia's suicide follows the model of her father, Cato, and sets an example for her husband. She, like her desperately courageous warrior brother, is a link between the two archetypal Republican suicides who so interested the Renaissance; she is, as it were, the Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son-in-Law. The mere arrangement of the plot leads the audience to feel that her death, like that of her father, serves as an important precedent to Brutus in his moment of crisis. The deeply divided Brutus eventually follows these examples even though he may speak disparagingly of her state as “Impatient” and “distract” (IV.iii.152, 155), of Cato's death as “cowardly and vile,” and lacking in “patience,” logic and piety (V.i.101-108). If Brutus were a simpler hero with a lesser, more mean intelligence, he would not be ready to see a “vile” suicide as benefitting his own “great … mind” (V.i.104, 113). So too, he would not praise his wife as “noble” for pleading the precedent of her suicidal father when she slashes her own skin:

I grant I am a woman; but withal
A woman well-reputed, Cato's daughter.
Think you I am no stronger than my sex,
Being so father'd and so husbanded?


I have made strong proof of my constancy,
Giving myself a voluntary wound
Here, in the thigh: can I bear that with patience,
And not my husband's secrets?
                                                                                                    O ye gods,
Render me worthy of this noble wife!


“Being so father'd and so husbanded” (l. 297), Portia seeks to act with Roman constancy and Roman manliness. Conversely, Brutus is eventually willing to act as inconsistently as a woman supposedly would—as inconsistently, in fact, as his own Roman wife does:

I do find it cowardly and vile.
.....                    [Yet] think not, thou noble Roman,
That ever Brutus will go bound to Rome;
He bears too great a mind.

(V.i.104, 111-113)

In Shakespeare and the other Elizabethans inconsistency is an evil to which women are allegedly more susceptible than men.33 But with the complex paradoxical figure of Brutus, Shakespeare suggests that a true man is brave enough to be womanish. In a truly manly man—Brutus and the heroes of all Shakespeare's later tragedies—the vices and virtues are practically indistinguishable and, by being so intermingled, a new moral taxonomy is implicitly proposed to replace the unduly rigid one he starts from.

His faults in him seem as the spots of heaven,
More fiery by night's blackness

(Antony and Cleopatra, I.iv.12-13)

Traits that are supposedly heavenly look black and traits that are or look black give off a white stellar light. Brutus' suicide shows him to be a viable model of conventional Roman manliness and at the same time a weak and inconsistent—which is to say a deeply human—person. If Brutus had been less flawed, he would have not been able to embody the extremes of weakness and strength. If he had been less “a woman,” he would have seemed less ordinary, weak and lovable. He would also have lost his claim as a true hero. As it is, his feet may be of clay, but his stature towers inspiringly (and totters fearfully) above all the other characters. It is this insight for comprising weakness within his presentation of his protagonist's essential character that leads Shakespeare directly on to the technical breakthrough represented by his characterization of Hamlet considered as a psychological contrivance which prompts belief and compels identification.

In his suicide Brutus reached the upward limits of heroism and manhood. But the play makes amply clear that these limits are tragically restrictive, being reinforced by a man's fate, his human weaknesses and the values that govern the society in which a man seeks to define himself. In Brutus' final phrases, as Traversi rightly notes, there is “the sense of a flatness, of empty exhaustion”:34 striving admirably still to raise his life from the level of nature to that of art, the exhausted Brutus dictates the last paragraph of his history:

                                                            Brutus' tongue
Hath almost ended his life's history.


Although he retains some fiery resolve, we keep perceiving in his tired, unimaginatively direct diction the ashes of a burnt out spirit: “we two went to school together”; “leap in” the “pit,” do not “tarry till they push us”; “Thou seest the world, Volumnius, how it goes”; “Thou art a fellow of good respect,” Strato, with “some smatch of honour”; “Hold then my sword, and turn away thy face, / While I do run upon it”; “my bones would rest” (V.iv.22-41). Brutus' final concern about obtaining the outward signs of honor from his school friends and from the rest of the debased “world” is deeply pathetic. In fact, it is hardly less pathetic than his realization that the assassination of Caesar has been at least partly an act of self-hate; an attack on what Brutus intuits is his own “evil spirit” (IV.iii.282).

                                                                      my bones would rest,
That have but labour'd to attain this hour.
.....                                                                      Caesar now be still:
I kill'd not thee with half so good a will. …

(V.v.41-42, 50-51)

In her own scenes, Portia prefigures and mirrors Brutus and the other ironic images of Roman constancy with their heroic-tragic need to win acceptance and to prove their manliness and Roman-ness. By the “voluntary wound” (II.i), she intends to prove her patient constancy, her more-than-womanly strength, and her kinship with the spirit of Lord Brutus, Cato, and presumably soldiers and other men who risk wounds: Deprived of Brutus' presence in “her bed,” from which he has “urgently … Stole” (ll. 237-238), she denies that she is “Brutus' harlot” (l. 287) by, ironically, presenting herself as an ersatz male who searches for Brutus' mental, rather than physical, “secrets” or hidden parts.

Tell me your counsels, I will not disclose 'em:


                              can I bear that [wound] with patience,
And not my husband's secrets?
… by and by thy bosom shall partake
The secrets of my heart.
All my engagements I will construe to thee.


Two scenes later (after an interval of scarcely two hundred lines) Portia appears in an episode that in no way contributes to the narrative progression. Instead, it serves to undermine her prior pretensions to constancy:

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 woman to keep counsel!
                    … Ay me, how weak a thing
The heart of woman is!

(II.iv.6-9, 39-40)

And in turn the episode helps cast suspicion on the like pretentions of other characters. Flustered, she cannot give her servant a single coherent command though she tries no fewer than seven times within forty-five lines. She asks the Soothsayer if he knows of any conspiracy, and she decides that her servant has overheard her fearful mumblings. What prevents the boy and the Soothsayer from guessing her (and her husband's) plot? These men's ignorance, mere chance, the tragic pattern, the sardonic spirit of History, or even the merciful Roman goddess Constantia? But surely not Portia's own intelligence, self-control, and constancy.

Aside from its obvious function of heightening the tension before the assassination, this scene exists in order to cast doubt upon Portia's constancy and the wisdom of Brutus who was consumed with confidence in it. To a large extent the audience shared Brutus' admiration for Portia's constancy in II.i, and thus must herewith revise this response.

Portia's two attempts at becoming an emblem of constancy are closely linked to the play as a whole, but particularly to the stage-moments immediately before and after her appearances. Even on the mere word “constancy” and its Elizabethan synonym, “resolution,” Shakespeare rings the changes several times within a few moments of Portia's appearances (II.i.113, 202, 227; III.i.22, 60, 72, 73, 131). In only one of these instances does constancy have an heroic, unironical sound to it:

Brutus, what shall be done? If this be known,
Cassius or Caesar never shall turn back,
For I will slay myself.
                                                                                                    Cassius be constant:
Popilius Lena speaks not of our purposes.


Here, of course, Brutus in contrast to Cassius (and Portia) embodies heroic constancy—the ability to see the facts clearly and unemotionally, the ability to bide one's time patiently without despair, hysteria, or diminution of purpose.

Elsewhere throughout these stage moments Roman constancy is subjected to an interrogating irony, perhaps nowhere stronger than it is in the final hubristic speeches of Caesar. The good and great man whom (in II.ii) Calphurnia and Decius Brutus “o'ersway” from what he is “resolved” (II.i.202), strains to make the Romans believe he is greater and more “constant” than a man can be:

I could be well moved, if I were 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.
.....                    [among men] I do know but one
That unassailable holds on his rank,
Unshaked of motion: and that I am he,
Let me a little show it, even in this;
That I was constant Cimber should be banish'd,
And constant do remain to keep him so.
.....          Hence! will thou lift up Olympus?

(III.i.58-62, 68-74; italics ours)

The irony is strong and manifold. First this Jove-like Caesar is merely an actor, one of the “players,” just as Casca had claimed (I.ii.262). Besides, the audience has just witnessed his vacillations at his home (II.ii) and is rightly expected to see the knives of the conspirators cruelly disprove his present claim to Olympian immobility and stellar constancy. Furthermore, Caesar's own language points towards the ironically external nature of constancy itself. “That I am he, / Let me a little show it”—with these words Caesar joins the ranks not only of Brutus but also of Hamlet, Angelo, Troilus, Achilles and the other philosophically puzzled or puzzling figures of the plays of Shakespeare's middle years. Though he is truly brave, constant, and royal, he and his whole society demand that he continually renew and compulsively prove his virtues and talents and not let them lie hidden and unapplauded, rusting, unused. Thus, Caesar‘s request that his fellow Romans let him “a little show” himself “constant” marks simultaneously several features in him and his society: on the one hand, a genuine heroic stature and a pathetic-ironic (and, yet, almost tragic) need even in old-age to keep proving oneself; and, on the other hand, the tragic situational tensions of man the social animal, who is the product, creator, and victim of his social ideals. The Stoic ethic was deeply histrionic and required renewed exposures to the gods' validating appraisal.

To be sure, the play (and history) make clear that there is a distant point at which even these ironies and these tragic elements dissolve, making good Caesar's and Portia's claim to “constancy,” though of a sort other than they intended: Caesar and, to a much smaller extent, Portia exert a constant power over the action in the last half of the play, and their self-assured greatness has had its effect over the imagination of the poet, his audience and Western civilization. By the end of the play “the spirit of Caesar,” which Brutus intended to oppose (II.ii.167, 169), has come to mean many things, not the least of which is the steadfast constancy with which Caesar and Octavius and, perhaps, Antony, seek supreme power. Yet despite these ultimate justifications for the Roman claim to constancy during most of the play, the audience regards the characters' claims to permanence and immobility as being tragically and ironically unfulfilled. The close analysis to which Shakespeare subjects these claims in the process of the play does not diminish dignity, it goes to show the costs and stresses of greatness.

Just as Portia's references to constancy prepare the audience for Caesar's, so too Portia's references are prepared for by the remarks of the conspirators (II.i). Throughout most of this scene, the conspirators busy themselves with externals and the processes of externalizing. In the Portia sequence of that scene, Brutus' wife is concerned with externalizing her wifely love, her manly spirit, and soldierly Roman constancy and dependability. Portia, wrongly but sincerely, thought “her voluntary wound … in the thigh” was obstetric, letting her “bear” her “constancy.” Her honorable husband is less superficially naive and more superficially insincere than she is about external appearances; but beneath the surface he is a tragically innocent opportunist, the true soul-mate of Portia, and of his “best lover” (III.i.50), Caesar.

Brutus dismisses the conspirators with the practical advice that they not disguise themselves with the forthright, conspicuously muffled faces of “faction” and “conspiracy” to which he had earlier objected (II.i.77); instead they should look dishonestly “fresh and merrily” (II.i.224).

Let not our looks put on our purposes,
But bear it as our Roman actors do,
With untired spirits and formal constancy.


He intends the condition of being a patient self-controlled Roman actor to be a praiseworthy condition. But the Elizabethan audience could hardly fail to see irony in the idea that the great idealist and leader of the noble-minded, aristocratic, old-fashioned Romans should be telling his group that they are to model themselves upon common players. Whatever else it may also do, the reference to actors subtly undercuts the nobility of the conspiracy and of the parade of constancy that is to follow.

In a series of arbitrary decisions which are simultaneously heroic and absurd, the conspirators keep choosing one set of external appearances over another and keep affirming their choices with formal constancy.

When the conspirators speak of including Cicero in their faction, Metellus argues that Cicero's “silver hairs / will purchase us a good opinion / And buy men's voices to commend our deeds” (II.i.144-146). To be sure, Brutus disapproves of the idea and says that it would not be in the interests of the internal organization of the conspiracy. But Shakespeare in no way permits Brutus to counteract the impressions that Metellus' images create for the audience—the faint but consistent impression that the conspirators are vote-buyers, bourgeois tradesmen, and impious traitors (like Caiphas and Judas). Again the conspirators are shown as Roman actors, men who are eager to disguise their actions and to pretend most constantly that they are dignified.

Many characters in Julius Caesar have a largely unjustified faith that they can capture reality if they steel (or petrify) themselves and play their parts in the rituals and ceremonies of life correctly, which is to say, constantly. Though this seems to be equally true of many non-Roman Shakespearean characters (e.g., Richard II, Henry IV, Claudius, Macbeth), the fact is that the Romans of Julius Caesar are more capable of self-deception and thus can play their parts with more constancy. Macbeth, contrarily, retains our conditional sympathy through his catalogue of definitively terrible acts just because his powers of self-deception are so minimal. The constant Brutus—in a way reminiscent of Shakespeare's exemplar of self-deception, the more malleable Richard II—strains until he deceives himself into believing that his very figures of rhetoric are realities that can be manipulated. He takes literally his own analogy between Antony and “a limb of Caesar,” concluding that Mark Antony “can do no more than Caesar's arm / When Caesar's head is off” (II.i.165, 182-183). Furthermore, he assumes that by an act of will the conspirators can redefine themselves and become “sacrificers, but not butchers” who “hack” limbs (ll. 166, 163). Though he twice shows concern over how the assassination will “seem” and appear to “the common eyes” (l. 179), he is more concerned about how the deed will appear to the conspirators' own eyes:

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.


The image he projects in this parable is of a selfish, urbanely sadistic employer who, knowing that his men are full of aggressions, surreptitiously manipulates them until they release their emotions and are punished; thereupon the employees can function more productively because of their release from the original strain and because they now feel guilty and under an obligation to the master. The “master” symbolizes the “heart” of each conspirator; the “servants” are not just the implements of murder—hands, daggers, and so on—but the murderous emotions. The obvious irony is that for a noble, constant Roman, emotion is not permitted to come spontaneously from the heart. But the residual horror of the passage is that Brutus should think that constancy can make truth. For he says that if in their hearts the conspirators are properly steeled to ignore the deceptions that they perpetrate upon their emotions, these spurious emotions will become the truth not only for the “common eyes” but for the conspirators as well: “This shall make / Our purpose necessary and not envious.” He forgets one of life's ground truths: we have being for ourselves, but we gain our meaning from others.

A parallel instance of the perverse workings of Roman constancy occurs earlier in II.i in the Orchard Soliloquy. There Brutus argues that for “the general” good Caesar must not be equipped with the “sting” of legalized supreme power (ll. 12, 16). He admits that there is “question” (1. 13) whether Caesar may abuse this power, but, rather than let the population run risks, Brutus believes action must be taken against Caesar now. And there is only one practical action against a man who is King in all but name: “It must be by his death.” One may refuse to grant Brutus' assumption that no man's life is more valuable than the right of the majority to escape the dictator's “scorning” and the gross “abuse of greatness,” but his radically democratic assumption has some claim to intellectual respectability, and his argument is honorable, logical and carried to its practical conclusion. Ironically, however, in epilogue to his argument he detects the arbitrary (i.e., self-persuading) element of his own reasoning:

                                                                                                                        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.


Brutus instructs himself to pretend—for his own benefit or that of others—that the assassination is designed to eliminate certain evil, rather than the mere risk of evil. To implement one's ideas in politics, one usually must, like an actor, a tailor or dyer, “fashion” things and change their “colour.” Brutus illustrates this principle in his attitudes towards Caius Ligarius:

He loves me well, and I have given him reasons;
Send him but hither, and I'll fashion him.


But as Shakespeare says in Sonnet CXI, “Public means … public manners breeds.” Tacitly Brutus agrees to sacrifice some of his personal nobility for the nobility of the idea he holds, hoping that his nature will not “like the dyer's hand” become “subdued to what it works in.” In this play, to judge from Brutus' quarrels with Cassius (III.ii and IV.ii), Brutus' ideas remain the same. But his constancy (which is his very being) is soiled in the working. His arrogant anger towards Cassius reflects how much it has cost Brutus to maintain his moral security, so as to feel impeccable while he tolerates and exploits the suppression of free speech and the use of bribery and extortion. No honorable man can, for long, play a cobbler, a tailor, a dyer, an actor, a despot, a political boss and still act, without damaging psychological lacunae, as if he respects himself. Occasionally in the last half of the play the audience has a fleeting sense that Brutus has lost the very constancy he must have in order to prove himself to himself and to his society. Just like Portia who begged to be regarded as a constant man, and Caesar who begged to be regarded as more constant than a man, Brutus finds himself a man of less absolute and honorable constancy than he ignorantly assumed himself to be. Through history, whose judgments tend to be relative and humanely tolerant, all three achieved a reputation for constancy by reason of their extraordinary perseverance in pursuit of this virtue.

If Julius Caesar is compared to Shakespeare's non-Roman plays, it can be seen that the makeup of the typical Roman character is distinguished mainly by the uneasy coexistence in the same personality of intense factiousness and a will to constancy. Other traits in his makeup are found in approximately the same proportions as they are found in the makeup of Shakespeare's non-Roman heroic, manly personages: pride, love of truth, love of freedom, love of honor, restraint, readiness for self-assertion, martial courage. And yet it is amply evident that these traits are related not only to one another but also to factiousness and constancy. Again and again, the conspirators (who come closer to representing the old Republicans than do Caesar, Antony and Octavius) show their concern about acting like men and Romans. A modern classicist,35 who is an amateur critic of Shakespeare, has noted that Shakespeare frequently puts the word “Roman” in the conspirators' mouths (some thirty times in fact) but hardly ever gives the word to Caesar, Octavius, and Antony. This critic concludes that this distribution is meant to sound a Ciceronian note and to suggest the “old Roman” republican personality as it is depicted in Livy and Cicero. Perhaps a better way would be to try to explain why traits flatly declared to be “Roman” should be almost identical with traits declared to be “manly” in non-Roman plays.36

The capacities of being loyal to one's friend or master, of speaking truth plainly, and of listening to painful truths with patience are regarded as plausible signs of masculinity in Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear but most notably Othello. There, Iago pretends to ground his soldierly manhood in being “direct and honest” (II.iii.378) rather than in following unverifiable intuitions: since “my jealousy / Shapes faults that are not” (ll. 147-148), I would be compelled to violate “my manhood, honesty, or wisdom, / To let you know my thoughts” (ll. 153-154). In return, he asks the Moor to endure Fortune's truths composedly: “Would you would bear your fortune like a man!” (IV.i.62), “Good sir, be a man” (l. 66), have “patience” or I will say you are “nothing of a man” (ll. 89-90); “Are you a man? have you a soul or sense?” (III.iii.374). The very qualities that Iago defines as ‘manly’ are, in Julius Caesar, identified first as “Roman” and only later as ‘manly.’

Now, as you are a Roman, tell me true.
Then like a Roman bear the truth I tell:
For certain she is dead, and by strange manner.
Why, farewell, Portia. We must die, Messala:
With meditating that she must die once,
I have the patience to endure it now.
Even so great men great losses should endure.
I have as much of this in art as you,
But yet my nature could not bear it so.

(IV.iii.187-195; italics ours)

Messala explains to the audience that to act “like a Roman” is to resemble “great men” in “truth”-telling, “patience,” and ability to “bear” calamity: in other words, romanitas is equivalent to virtus, the virtues of a man (vir). This pattern of localizing and then universalizing is exactly paralleled by Antony's eulogy at the end of the tragedy:

This was the noblest Roman of them all:
.....                                                  Nature might stand up
And say to all the world ‘This was a man!’

(V.v.68-75; italics ours)

If the Folio text in IV.iii is reliable and the dual revelations of Portia's death are intentional, Brutus might seem very much less admirable to the audience than he does to Messala. As if anticipating the extremely ironic light in which Brutus' display of constancy could be viewed by the audience, Shakespeare makes Cassius praise Brutus for having a “nature” strong enough to play this trick. Since, the audience's awareness of what is happening on stage is almost identical with that of Cassius, Cassius can substantially become a spokesman for the audience. So, Shakespeare has Cassius lead the audience beyond the superficial judgment that Brutus is a fraud to the more profound perception that Brutus' little trick is a sign of this truly constant nature. Brutus is not a sly prig who will defame any human tie (e.g., to Portia and to Messala) if he can thereby make himself and others believe in his constancy. Rather, Brutus, whose love for Portia is made amply clear by his sweet but foolish decision to tell her of the conspiracy, can restrain his profound attachments to the past and his deep emotional life; he can also manipulate them in the face of present dangers and in the interests of the moral health of his comrades. Cassius' remark, therefore, means: I know that Romans and “great men” are supposed to practice this “art” of stoic constancy, but in a crisis my “nature” would not be heroic, manly, and Roman enough to maintain this art. The episode thus simultaneously reveals the staginess, the concern for the “general good,” and the heroism involved in being able “to bear it as our Roman actors do, / With untired spirits and formal constancy” (II.i.226-227). …


  1. Shakespeare's Caesar: The Language of Sacrifice,” CompD [Comparative Drama], III (1969), 3-26. Among the many recent studies of Julius Caesar, with their often stale obsessions with canonized issues, a few stand out as especially vital intellectually, keenly informed, or fresh in their perceptions. John Anson's “Julius Caesar: The Politics of the Hardened Heart,” ShakS [Shakespeare Studies], II (1966), 11-33, is a sensitive and versatile “ethnological approach” to the play with some strikingly phrased comments on the play's reflection of “the current discussion of Neo-Stoic ethics.” Though his adversary posture towards Brutus distorts his argument, his essay is of high caliber. Mildred E. Hartsock's “The Complexities of Julius Caesar,” PMLA, LXXXI (1966), 56-62 is serviceable as a review of critical schools and polemical positions as well as providing a modest caveat to all who undertake a reading of the play: “The outcome of a close examination of Julius Caesar is the discovery that no theory of the meaning of the play or of its major characters can unify the dissident elements” (p. 61). Hartsock's essay can be joined to J. C. Maxwell's earlier bibliographical essay, “Shakespeare's Roman Plays,” ShS [Shakespeare Survey], X (1957), 1-11; and to Leonard Dean ed., Twentieth Century Interpretations of Julius Caesar (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1968) to provide a nearly complete review of such scholarly and critical commentary as remains germane to a well-informed approach to the play. In Dean's anthology readers will find samplings of important recent contributions from Stirling, Schanzer, Charney, Rabkin, Heilman et al., and bibliographical guidance for following the issues further. These will suffice until the appearance of the Caesar Variorum edition being prepared currently by John Velz. While not denigrating the quality of these anthologized contributions, it is evident that critical argument about the play had begun to reach a point of unprofitable stasis until the appearance of the essays by Anson and Anderson cited above.

    Throughout our essay we cite Shakespeare in The Complete Works, ed. Hardin Craig (Chicago, 1951, 1961); in quoting other authors, we have modernized only the letters i, j, u, and v.

  2. See Section IV of this essay, infra.

  3. There is a profound difference between envy, which wishes to destroy the intolerable capacities or possessions of another person who cannot be denied superiority to one's self in this hated particular, and jealous guardianship of what are felt to be the necessary attributes of human goodness and dignity. Brutus is susceptible to Cassius's envious deprecations of Caesar not because he covets Caesar's role, or because he shares Cassius's gnawing rancor, but because he decides Caesar is growing pathologically (cf. the serpent-egg metaphor) into something offensive to an antecedent and sacrosanct notion of human quality. Brutus identifies his own Self as a preserver or priest of these threatened sanctities. If, as scholars allege, Brutus traces a progress in ways analogous to Macbeth's, he more clearly prefigures an inner process analogous to Hamlet's. Both are infected by a “Saviour-Complex,” but for both this is largely induced by events which “choose them.” Both are made to feel and do accept their obligations to serve as repositories of spiritual values, otherwise eclipsed by the presence of a Caesar or a Claudius. There is in both plays a sense of the awful deforming power of such dominant figures as it acts on the moral structure of those under their political care, so that e.g., Cassius's envy is a disease caused equally by the defects of his own nature and the action of Caesar's nature upon his susceptibilities. This tainting presence or “hidden imposthume” must be removed lest it corrupt all the rest. It is easy for Brutus, with his abstract generalizing habits of thought, to extrapolate from the personal conditions of Cassius or Ligarius to that of Rome as a spiritual community. The entire deontology of Stoicism puts the wise man in a physician's role thereby committing him to be a doctor to the ailments of the value system. Thus Brutus's intellectual allegiance to Stoic dogma about human freedom may complicate many of his actions, but this allegiance neither sullies nor precludes his love for Caesar, nor his undeniable urge to control men whom his ethic classifies as less self-controlled and hence less admirable than himself, or Caesar.

  4. Nicholas Brooke, Shakespeare's Early Tragedies (London, 1968), pp. 150, 161, sees the play as a “grotesque (almost Falstaffian) comedy in uncomfortable reflection,” and as a work that is awkwardly deflected at IV.iii from its true course, namely, to be “something more like Troilus and Cressida, where the end shows life simply going on,” with everyone's getting the equivalent of venereal disease.

  5. The self-dramatization of Oth. V.ii.352-356, 358-359 rather than the hyperbole of 265-280 or the cheering-up of 341-351; the fairly full self-awareness of Cor. V.iii.182-189 rather than the boasting of

  6. Anson, op. cit., 13-18, makes useful remarks on Lipsius' treatment of the Stoic notion of the individual's inner fire, and on Erasmus', Browne's, and Burton's criticism of the flinty stoniness that the Stoic doctrine of Constancy encourages.

  7. Many characters in Seneca His Tenne Tragedies (rpt. Bloomington, 1966) often wish voluntary death: Oedipus, Antigone, Theseus, Amphitryon, Hecuba, Jason, but only Phaedra, Jocasta, Deianira, and Hercules translate wish into action. Neither Phaedra nor Jocasta could be a model for the Elizabethan Senecal suicide. The lack of cool dignity in the dying love-crazed Phaedra can be seen in her gruesome anatomical inventory: “lims in lusty plight,” “bowles,” “eies,” and total “body”—all are now ready for dead Hippolytus' use. The lack of dignity in Jocasta's death springs 1) from her tasteless quibbles about the complexity of her family tree, 2) from her debate as to where to thrust her sword (“brest,” “throte,” “womb”?) and 3) from her and the chorus' insistence upon such unheroic touches as the “doulfull,” “dyrefull” “hideousnesse” of her gushing “bloud,” her “sighes, and scalding teares,” her feeling “faint,” her moans about her “sindrownd soule.” However in Hercules Oetaeus, though the “silly woman” Deianira strikes several Jocastan and Phaedran poses, the hero himself dies with a saintly Stoic “cherefull looke” of great “majesty and grace.”

  8. The final and/or overall attitudes towards suicide in the Countess of Pembroke's 1590 literal translation of the Marc-Antoine, in Kyd's 1594 translation of the Cornélie, in the Porcie (which Kyd promised to translate), and in Brandon's Garnieresque Virtuous Octavia of 1598 are confused, confusing, and thus basically unheroic. Garnier's long and perplexed literary dalliance with suicide is interestingly treated in Mouflard, Robert Garnier, 1545-1590 (II, 117-120).

  9. In her final moments, when she ceases to “rave,” V.i.265 (Ribner ed.), Dido seems to be gaining considerable dignity. But soon she over-reaches mere Stoical self-assertion and plunges into bombast, even striking a residually Christian note when she says, “Ay, I must be the murderer of myself” (1. 270). Also, the hurried sequence of deaths (Dido, Iarbas, Anna seriatim) is rather less skillfully and fully dramatized—and therefore less moving and heroic—than the suicides (Agydas, Bajazeth, Zabina, Olympia) and quasi suicides (note particularly Calyphas) in Tamburlaine.

  10. In I.ii Queen Guinevera, like Oedipus in Seneca's Thebais, is persuaded after much debate to relinquish the wild, desperate purpose of suicide.

  11. In death Romeo and Juliet are more blind, and thus pathetic, than heroically stoic. In the dénouement the kindly Friar (who earlier condemned Romeo's first suicide attempt as “desperate,” “wild,” beastly, and unfitting a “man,” III.iii.108-111) keeps reminding the audience that these suicides are sad signs of human frailty in a deterministic universe: an “ill unlucky thing,” “a lamentable chance” in “an unkind hour” (V.iii.136, 145-146).

  12. In the 1591-92 version, as in the 1567 version (see n. 17 below), the heroine and her father lack stoical calm and are regarded as damned and demonic. The 1591 chorus speaks of the heroine's “resolution” (ll. 1696-1697), only to show her that it has been overthrown by “rashnes” and the bewitching influence of a “damned furie” (l. 1692). Her father dramatizes his own suicide in a thoroughly medieval Christian way: “be thou desperate / One mischief brings another on his neck” (ll. 1850-1871).

  13. Hieronymo, who bites off his tongue and stabs himself with a mere penknife, is too crazed to be a heroic Senecal suicide. His is a merely “monstrous resolution,” as the King notes, IV.iv.191. (Kyd references are to The Works, ed. F. S. Boas). And though Bel-Imperia has a stoic side like the apprehended Iago, her suicide is less operatically heroic than those of later Elizabethan stage-stoics.

  14. For example, the episodes entitled “Mors Pilati” (The Ancient Cornish Drama, ed., tr. Edwin Norris, Oxford, 1859), in which Tiberius reflects that Jesus must have inspired Pilate's suicide, it being the “cruelest” revenge for the Crucifixion, since “For a more cruel death, certainly, / Than to kill himself, / No man may find.”

  15. The good Virginius, despite his own prior desire for suicide, announces at the end of the play in inconsistently shocked tones, “Apius he him selfe hath lewdly slaine / … desperate for bluddy deede,” 11. 1149-1151 (R. B., Apius and Virginia, McKerrow, Greg eds.).

  16. The first of the two accounts of Jocasta's death is remarkably low-keyed and therefore lacking in heroic aura (V.ii.173-177). The second account produces pathos, not admiration; “With bloudlesse cheekes and gastly lookes … She gorde hirselfe with wide recurelesse wounde,” V.iv.27-29 (Cunliffe ed., Early English Classical Tragedies).

  17. In the 1566 version (see n. 12 above) of the Gismond (Cunliffe ed., op. cit.) the heroine's father's suicide is a wildly vindictive act in which he decides to “wreke my wrathfull ire / upon my self” (V.iv.30-31). The immorality of this action is further underscored by the Epilogus, who says Tancred slew himself in “depe despeir” (l. 5).

  18. For example, the Junius Brutus-like behavior of the English King as described in HV, II.iv.35-38:

    How terrible in constant resolution,
    And you shall find his vanities forespent
    Were but the outside of the Roman Brutus,
    Covering discretion with a coat of folly.
  19. Among the Marginal Notes in North's Plutarch, 1579, for instance, are references to “The wonderfull constancy of the conspirators,” and “The wonderfull constancy of Brutus” (G. Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources, V, 99 and 115).

  20. Shortly after this date, coinciding with the increase of interest in constancy, Schonaeus' Judithae Constantia was translated. This work celebrates a Biblical rather than a pagan stoic heroine.

  21. In this play as in many later ones, the stoic element is emphasized by reiteration of the words Resolution, Constancy, and their cognates. They appear more frequently in Cornelia than in any other of Kyd's plays, according to Charles Crawford's Concordance to … Kyd (Louvain, 1906-1910, Bang's Materialen, XV). In her debate with Cicero on suicide, Act II, the heroine says she wishes to imitate “the resolute” (l. 321), and not to outlive her husband, Pompey; this phrase has been supplied entirely by Kyd; there is nothing in Garnier that corresponds to it. Though she is dissuaded from suicide, the play draws to a close once she learns of the death of her father. One of the Scipios, he kills himself in an extremely dignified, heroic way—in a much nobler and more soberly stoical fashion than the available historical documents in Appian, Cicero, Livy, Seneca, Dio, and Tacitus would seem to permit. See Paulys Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, III, 1228. In the stage-nuntius' description of Scipio's death the word “resolv'd” is once again used of stoical Roman self-immolation (Kyd, ed. Boas).

  22. In l. 463 the chorus, with a finely poised sense of heroic paradox, momentarily balances its view of suicide between the pagan heroic ethic and the chivalric Christian one, saying that Cleopatra's “Dispaire doth … a courage give” to her. Later, this heroine, whose suicide is more stoical than those of most stage and closet drama figures of the 1590's, exclaims: “Who can stay a mind resolv'd to die,” l. 1171; “For what I will / I am resolv'd,” ll. 1432-1433 (Bullough, Sources, V).

  23. Though the play ends with Brutus's quite inconstant and unheroic suicide, Cato and a few minor characters stand as impressive spokesmen for Roman constancy. In ll. 1045-1052 Cato tells his son, “Remember boy thou art a Romaine borne,” and urges his followers in the “declining state” of Rome to maintain their traditional “strength of minde, that vertues constancy.” In ll. 1523-1524 Trebonius seeks to redouble the courage of his troops with the motto, “forward resolution / Shews you descended from true Romaine line” (ed. F. S. Boas, W. W. Greg).

  24. Edward H. Sugden, A Topographical Dictionary to the Works of Shakespeare and His Fellow Dramatists (Manchester, 1925), p. 437, points to a character in this play who announces his readiness for death with the phrase, Romanus sum, Romano more moriar.

  25. Seventeenth century Roman dramas are full of evidence associating Romans with Stoic Constancy-and-Resolution and/or Fieriness. A few such tragedies resemble Julius Caesar (with its images of the tinder-box and the constant stellar fire) in integrating Roman Constancy and Fieriness explicitly. Almost plagiarizing Caesar, Richards in his Messallina (A. R. Skemp ed.), ll. 2385-2434, toys with several Caesarian images in describing the hardness and warmth of three major characters: the “flinthearted” Emperor, his “Taper”-like victim, and the victim's “Phoenix”-like wife. Also, the Romanized heroine of Marston's Sophonisba (ed. H. H. Wood), V.iii, achieves a stellar destiny because she has the character of tempered steel from which sparks keep flying. She is made paradoxically “hard and firme” and “more cold” than fate by the fires of misfortune and the “flame” of her “vertue.” Her burning “vertue” is itself refined by the pressure of the “sparkling steel … strokes of Chance” and by chilling immersion in the “seas of miseries.” Almost as effective and Caesar-like is the episode in which the Heywood-Webster Scaevola (Rape of Lucrece) coolly and defiantly burns his own hand on stage and is pardoned and praised by his enemy: “Roman we admire thy constancy / And scorne of fortune, go, return to Rome,” ll. 2751-2752 (Allan Holoday ed.). And the republicans in Sejanus I.93ff. (Barish ed.), who feel that they lack the old-time “fire” and that there is “nothing Roman” in them, long for the soul of “constant Brutus.”

    Evidence of the seventeenth century use of Stoic Roman Constancy motifs alone are to be seen in many more plays. In Massinger's Roman Actor I.iii (A. K. McIlwraith, ed., Five Stuart Tragedies), a sycophant, when ascribing to Domitian “every touch” “Roman,” includes “Cato's resolution.” Fearing that her ardent king will bestow on her a fate worse than death, the virgin Roman wife in the Faithful Friends (Dyce ed. anonymous Beaumont … Fletcher, London, 1844, IV, 153) alludes to her suicidal “resolve, / Which beyond death is constant.” The self-assertive villain hero of the Heywood-Webster Appius and Virginia (Lucas ed., Webster), unlike his counterpart in the early Elizabethan Apius, slays himself like a “true-bred Roman,” V.ii.146, that is, “bravely,” l. 140, and “with as much resolved constancy / As [he] offended,” ll. 34-35. “Constancy” is one of the “six Roman champions” in a didactic masque presented to Titus in Hemming's Jew's Tragedy, 1. 3069 (H. A. Cohn, ed.). Fletcher's Aecius in Valentinian IV.iv (Bullen Variorum) kills himself with such “constant nobleness” that he indicates that he was “alone a Roman” (l. 294).

    Coriolanus provides splendid but quite typical examples of how the Constancy motif operates in a seventeenth century play. In the very first lines the Roman mob, which will prove itself to be as ironically inconstant as the hero, asserts its intention to be “resolved” (I.i.4-5), even to the point of committing the equivalent of suicide. The theme of the hero's own futile aspiration towards constancy is heralded in the first scene also when, not long after his entry, he describes himself as “constant” (l. 243). Later, Aufidius makes a supposed compliment, the real sarcasm of which is inaudible to Coriolanus' Roman ear: “You keep a constant temper” ( Further verbal echoing of the Constancy-Revolution theme is found in; II.iii.40; And the work as a whole investigates the tragic difficulty of translating the Roman ideal of constancy into creative, purposive action instead of into mechanized, inflexible gesture.

  26. Titus Andronicus, like the narrative “Lucrece,” deals with Stoic Constancy without reiterating this theme again and again verbally. Yet it is significant that resolution and its cognates appear in II.i.57,105; III.i.239; and twice in the opening scene, I.i.135,278. This opening scene further establishes the role of self-control in the dynamics of Rome by having Bassianus pledge to “consecrate” the emperorship to “continence (ll. 14-15).

  27. An Auncient Historie …, tr. W. B. (London, 1578), p. 52.

  28. Ibid, p. 56.

  29. Early hints of this tendency can be seen in the mention of the “stony heart” of the non-dramatic Caesar of 1591 in Parts Added to the Mirror for Magistrates, ed. L. B. Campbell (Cambridge, Mass., 1946), p. 302, and of the dramatic Caesar of 1594 in the Kyd Cornelia V. In Shakespeare's Ant. III.iii.24 the “cold, holy still” Octavia is likened to a “statue.” The hardness and coldness of the Romans is also emphasized by such references as the descriptions of Valeria as an “icicle / … curdied by the frost” in Cor. V.iii.66-67; allusions to the senators as “flints,” to Catiline as stone, to Rome as having “stony entrails” Catiline III.647; V.677ff; I.93 (Herford, Simpson eds.); and the reference to Flaminius as a man of “cold blood” and “frozen conscience,” in Believe As You List, ed. Sisson, l. 414.

  30. Edward Dowden, Shakespeare's Mind and Art (rpt. New York, 1967), pp. 306-307. Cf. Adrien Bonjour, The Structure of “Julius Caesar” (Liverpool, 1958), p. 24, which describes the plot as possessing “the rigor, and the beauty of a syllogism carved in porphyry.”

  31. The bloodiness of the stereotyped factious and imperialistic Roman was axiomatic in the Renaissance, as proven by T. J. B. Spencer, “Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Roman,” ShS, X, 27-38 and J. Leeds Barroll, “Shakespeare's Idea of Roman History,MLR [Modern Language Review], LIII (1958), 327-343. The Romans' wolfishness, a hitherto unnoticed part of their bloodiness, may be seen in several passages: for example, not only in JC, I.iii.104-105, but also in the Heywood-Webster Appius II.ii.52, Fuims Troes, IV.iv; Roman Actor, V.i.257; Sejanus, III.251; anon. Marcus Tullius Cicero, V, sig. E2v. Apparently, the earliest reference is found not in antiquity, but in the Kyd-Garnier Cornelia, V.240.

  32. There is no denying, however, Brutus' love for Portia, Lucius, the Old Rome, and the Caesar whom “the heart of Brutus yearns to think” will be betrayed.

  33. Donne's Paradoxes opens with the statement “That women are inconstant, I with any man confesse,” Juvenilia facs., ed. R. E. Bennet (New York, 1936). In Sonnet XX Shakespeare compliments his young male friend on having a “woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted / With shifting change, as is false women's fashion.”

  34. Derek Traversi, Shakespeare: The Roman Plays (Stanford, 1963), p. 74.

  35. Richard M. Haywood, “Shakespeare and the Old Roman,” CE [College English], XVI, 98-101, 151.

  36. For an excellent, general but non-encroaching discussion, see Robert B. Heilman, “Manliness in the Tragedies: Dramatic Variations,” Shakespeare 1565-1964, ed. Edward A. Bloom (Providence, R. I., 1964).

Ruth M. Levitsky (essay date March 1973)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4239

SOURCE: Levitsky, Ruth M. “The Elements Were So Mix'd …” PMLA 88, no. 2 (March 1973): 240-45.

[In the following essay, Levitsky illuminates Brutus's Stoic virtues and contrasts his character with the less admirable Caesar.]

In a survey of the half-century (1900-50) of scholarship dealing with Shakespeare's Roman plays, J. C. Maxwell commends Sir Mark Hunter's “Politics and Character in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar” as “one of the first among modern attempts to correct the tendency to overidealize Brutus and give him too central a part in the play.”1 In the thirty-odd years since Hunter's study was published this overidealization, I suggest, has been overcorrected.2 For while it is true that Brutus is not the ideal hero that Henry v is, he is still the noblest Roman of them all. This, I submit, is all that Shakespeare ever intended him to be; but that all is no little, and it ought not be denied him.

One of the more recent denigrations of Brutus is John Anson's “Julius Caesar, the Politics of the Hardened Heart,” in which Romans generally are indicted as “blocks … stones … worse than senseless things.”3 Certainly Shakespeare was capable of using such terms to describe young men who would devote their lives to “suck[ing] the sweets of sweet philosophy.” And, unquestionably, the moral petrification resulting from attempts to stifle the emotions is condemned in such a snow-broth-and-congealed-ice character as Angelo in Measure for Measure.

But it was a simpler matter to write a play about the villainy of a hardhearted Renaissance Italian than to write one about the villainy of a Stoic Roman. For while the Elizabethans could ridicule “that astonishment, which the Stoikes call tranquility,” they could also admit that these men “had certaine principles upon which they did builde, which indeed are not to be despised” and that their respect for the moral virtues was such as to make many a Christian blush.4

One might venture as a general observation that the almost unqualified admiration of the ancients seen in earlier sixteenth-century philosophical tracts is, after the end of the century, supplanted by a measure of distrust in that hardiness which may become either hardness or a Pelagian-like overconfidence in the Self. Certainly, Sir Thomas Elyot's sage is Stoic (Bankette of Sapience, 1539); and, unquestionably, the various volumes of sententiae popular in Shakespeare's youth encouraged the reader to admire that fortitude consistently proclaimed by Plutarch, Cicero, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius and avowedly practiced by Zeno, Stilpo, and Cato.5 On the other hand, William Jewel's The Golden Cabinet of True Treasure (1612, sig. R3v) can censure “the severe Stoickes (which would have … men … to be stupid and senseless)”; and Thomas Cooper (The Mysterie of the … Government of our Affections, 1618, sig. B14v) can ridicule those Stoics who “coniected such a kind of senseless happinesse which might free from all affections.”

Nevertheless, Pierre Charron's Of Wisdom (1606), Henry Crosse's Vertues Commonwealth (1603), and Anthony Stafford's Heavenly Dogge (1615) stand—along with others—as monuments to a long-cherished ideal of virtue through self-mastery. While a perusal of sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century treatises on virtue reveals a certain ambivalence toward the Stoic,6 there is nevertheless evidence that, however grudgingly, many Elizabethans and Jacobeans did admire that discipline which Hamlet commends in Horatio.

Although Stoicism is tried and found wanting in Julius Caesar, we may observe that in the course of that trial the same rigid control that fosters induration can also function as an assurance of moral stability. The “constancy” which arms a man against flattery, fawning, and bribery; which sustains him in carrying out calmly whatever decisions are necessary for the good of his country; which enables him to face death without tears or terror—this quality certainly could be seen by the Elizabethans as commendable. While they sometimes called it stubbornness or stoniness, they were also capable of calling it fortitude, resolution, or constancy—all branches of virtue both in the Roman catalog and in the Elizabethan.

To see the firmness of Brutus as merely evidence of the hardened heart is to miss the dilemma at the center of his tragedy. To categorize him as just one more Roman is to overlook the painstaking care with which his creator has set him apart from his countrymen. Though the “cheefe and princypall vertue” (namely, a faith in God) was lacking in all “Infydelles,” it was a mistake, as Bishop Woolton pointed out, “to be so dull and senseles, to thinke that there is no dyfference betweene Cato and Catalyne.”7

Schoolboys learned the difference between Cato and Cataline, for Cato was held up as a model of pagan virtue.8 It may, therefore, be edifying to note that in the opening paragraphs of his chief source for Julius Caesar, Shakespeare found the following:

Marcus Cato the philosopher was brother unto Servilia, M. Brutus' mother, whom Brutus studied most to follow of all the other Romans …9

E. A. J. Honigman has pointed out the probability that Shakespeare got some hints from Plutarch's “Cato Utican” for his portrayal of Brutus.10 The integrity, the idealism, the sense of justice, and stubborn devotion to what he considers the good of his country—all these traits attributed to Brutus by Plutarch—are found augmented in Cato. While their most outstanding similarity is their hatred of tyranny, it is important to note also that Plutarch makes both of them gentle and human. If Brutus studied to be like Cato, he would have “mingled with his severity and hardness” a tenderness and concern for those closest to him (Plutarch, VII, 298).

Following Honigman's lead, I suggest that Plutarch's comparison of Dion and Brutus may have been a further source for the characterization of Brutus:

For wherein their chiefest praise consisted, … in hating of tyrants and wicked men: it is most true that Brutus' desire was most sincere … For having no private cause of complaint or grudge against Caesar, he ventured to kill him, only to set his country again at liberty … Furthermore, the respect of the commonwealth caused Brutus, that before was Pompey's enemy, to become his friend, and enemy unto Caesar, that before was his friend; only referring his friendship and enmity, unto the consideration of justice and equity.

… [Brutus'] very enemies themselves confessed that of all those that conspired Caesar's death, he only had no other end and intent to attempt his enterprise, but to restore the empire of Rome again to her former state and government.

(IX, 316-17)

If Shakespeare availed himself of all that Plutarch had to say about the relative virtue of these Romans and also noted the common opinions of Elizabethans concerning the dangers of the Stoic creed, he was almost certain in writing a play about the Rome of Caesar's day to create a hero about whom we would have mixed feelings. For if every schoolboy knew the difference between a Cato and a Cataline, he also knew the difference between a pagan and a Christian. What Shakespeare is faced with in this play is the problem of keeping both these distinctions always before us: though Brutus is no ordinary pagan, he does have the Stoic flaw of too much confidence in his own will and wisdom; though he must fail as the self-appointed savior of Rome, he can nevertheless be the noblest Roman of them all.

What I propose to point out, then, is the method by which Shakespeare has caused Brutus to stand head and shoulders above his fellows and at the same time to fall short, not only of the Christian ideal, but also of the Stoic effort to control the passions and to be always ruled by Right Reason. In Brutus we can see a man who from the beginning suffers in spite of his fortitude and who knows that there is some danger in disjoining remorse from power, while in Caesar we see a man who in his absolute inflexibility has become inhuman. Again, we see in Brutus' uprightness and integrity a contrast to Cassius' malicious envy; and in his disciplined life a contrast to Antony's “epicureanism.”

We repeatedly see in Brutus the purity of motive, steadfastness of purpose, and strength of will characteristic of the Stoic, mixed with a tendency toward human passion and compassion which render him more vulnerable to suffering but also more lovable than the obdurate Caesar. For example, although he calmly reviews (in soliloquy) the reasoning behind his decision to kill Caesar, we are expressly told that he did not arrive at this decision without experiencing great mental perturbation: he has not slept, the interim has been like a hideous dream, and his whole being has been in a state of insurrection. Shakespeare has preserved Brutus' humanity and at the same time given us a man so devoted to his country that he will kill his friend to save it. Calmly Brutus states the probable consequences if Caesar is allowed to become King and calmly he says what must be done to prevent it. He has no personal cause; his cause is the general good of Rome. Caesar is the kind of person who, according to Brutus, will forget the common people (“base degrees”) who have helped him to the throne; the kind of person who in his perfect justice untinged with mercy will be dangerous if he gains absolute power:

The abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins
Remorse from power: and, to speak the truth of Caesar,
I have not known when his affections sway'd
More than his reason.


When we meet Caesar, we find him precisely the cold dispenser of justice Brutus has described. Unlike Brutus, Caesar does not (as far as we know) mingle with his severity and hardness any tenderness or gentleness. His affections do not, indeed, sway more than his Reason. But the fact of his refusal to heed the supplications in behalf of Cimber is not what condemns him: it is presumably commendable for a judge to remain unmoved by “couchings” if he is certain that his sentence is just. We cannot fail to note, however, the pride of Caesar and the contempt in which he holds those beneath him:

These couchings …
Might fire the blood of ordinary men.
.....I spurn thee like a cur out of my way,
.....I could be well moved, if I were as you;
If I could pray to move, prayers would move me:

(III.i.36-59, passim)

Caesar's own term for remaining “unshak'd of motion” is constancy:

… I am constant as the northern star
… I was constant Cimber should be banish'd
And constant do remain to keep him so.

(III.i.60, 72-73)

Is constancy, then, not a virtue after all? Not, it would appear, as Caesar practices it. The majesty of the judge who will not be moved by “base spaniel fawning” is overshadowed by the arrogance of the proud man's claim to be more than flesh and blood. The man has become a god—but a god lacking in mercy and kinship with mankind. That Shakespeare has pictured him thus indicates, I think, a condemnation both of tyranny and of Stoic induration.

We ought not to forget, however, that it was Brutus who warned us against the dangers of this hardness—of the disjoining of remorse from power. And it is perhaps the supreme irony of the play that Brutus worries about Caesar's lack of affections at the very moment when he is attempting to stifle his own. Even so, there is revealed a fundamental difference in the characters of the two men: it is Brutus who is consistently shown to be governed by selflessness and to be capable of human suffering. The difference is not so much in the actions of the two men as in their spirit. For the Stoic, good or evil lies in the intention, in the motivation: of Caesar's motives, we can never be sure; of Brutus', we are repeatedly assured that they are entirely unselfish.11 For the Christian, compassion, grief, sorrow ought to accompany even an execution of justice—as they do in Brutus. And the strong ought to sympathize with the weak, as Caesar manifestly does not.

The difference in spirit between Brutus and Caesar is clear in the language Brutus uses when instructing the conspirators how to carry out the assassination. He manifests his superiority over his fellows without once asserting that he has no fellow. And it is apparent that he is not “unshak'd of motion.” Prior to, in the course of, and immediately following the conversation with the other conspirators, Brutus is made to reveal a humanity that we never see in Caesar. In laying the plans for the murder, though the Stoic coldness is certainly underscored more heavily than the affections, it is precisely the expression of both in a single scene that makes the dilemma so poignant:

O, that we then could come by Caesar's spirit,
And not dismember Caesar! But, alas,
Caesar must bleed for it!


Does this in Brutus seem stony? Stones should be made of harder stuff. It is stern, certainly, but it is not the sternness of Caesar.

Brutus' expression of regret has come as a kind of aside interrupting his description of the spirit in which the assassination should be carried out—a spirit of calm, allowing for no envy, anger, or hatred:

Let's kill him boldly, but not wrathfully:
Let's carve him as a dish fit for the gods.


Our culture understands—even forgives—the murder committed in the heat of passion whereas it utterly condemns the cool, premeditated murder, however “just” the cause. The sanctions of the Stoic were quite the opposite: the Wise Man could both determine and carry out his duty by means of his reason unaided by emotions.

That Brutus' constancy here is meant to be of this sort cannot be denied. What he demands is no less than the extreme justice Caesar will insist upon. But the language of sacrifice,12 the aside expressing regret, and the earlier picture of a Brutus “vex'd … with passions of some difference”—while they do not alter the act of “Stoic Justice”—they keep us aware of the essential humanity of the character, of his suffering as a man even while he must act as a man.

Immediately the deed is done, we hear once more how gentleness and severity are commingled in Brutus:

… yet see you but our hands
And this the bleeding business they have done:
Our hearts you see not: they are pitiful.


This much to Antony. For the citizens of Rome, he amplifies upon the same theme: he loved Caesar, but he loved Rome more; he had tears for him and honor for his valor, but he killed him for his ambition. Though he amplifies, he does not embellish. The effusive and emotive oration is for Antony to deliver—“Antony, that revels long o'nights” (II.ii.116).

In the famous quarrel scene, Brutus is once again shown to be something more than—or something less than—a Stoic. Surely (though he is not subject to choler as Cassius is) Brutus speaks the following words in passion:

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 though one cannot imagine him—like Cassius—“weep[ing] his spirit from [his] eyes,” or indulging in such false heroics as

                                        … There is my dagger,
And here my naked breast;
.....Strike, as thou didst at Caesar.

(IV.iii.100-01, 105)

still the scene shows us a Brutus not only quite human in anger and in grief, but finally—in his “O Cassius, you are yoked with a lamb”—as gentle as any Christian could desire. That “no man bears sorrow better” he proves in his calm reception of the news of Portia's death:13

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


That he feels his loss keenly, nonetheless, is tellingly revealed in his simple “O Cassius, I am sick of many griefs. … Portia is dead” (IV.iii.145-48). Nor is the passion of fear entirely foreign to the breast of Brutus, as we learn when the sight of Caesar's ghost makes his “blood cold and [his] hair to stare” (IV.iii.280). Yet the calm response, “Why, I will see thee at Philippi, then,” once more assures us that the Roman Stoic does make some use of his philosophy. This mingling of the Stoic calm and fortitude with the flesh-and-blood emotions of anger, grief, and fear is, I suggest, Shakespeare's attempt to give us the modified version of a Stoic that he considered the noblest kind of pagan.

If Brutus must learn that he is not entirely invulnerable where the passions are concerned, he is also to discover that his Reason is not (as the Pagan Wise Man thought) wholly infallible. Brutus, being something of a philosopher, had long pondered the noble way to die as well as the noble way to live. Yet, face to face with the issue, he is far from certain whether he ought to commit suicide. In answer to Cassius' question: “What will you do if we lose the battle?” he replies, in effect: “I will practice what I have preached. I earlier blamed Cato for committing suicide ‘for fear of what might befall’ because somehow I have always considered this escapism cowardly and vile. Therefore, ‘arming myself with patience,’ I will take whatever Providence has in store for me” (paraphrase of V.i.101-08).14 Brutus promptly changes his mind, however, when reminded that this patience may mean being led captive through the streets of Rome.

The patience and the reliance on Providence which Brutus decides to reject would have made him more Christian than Stoic. But he was not and could not be Christian. What he could be Shakespeare made him: a Roman who stood out as more human than Caesar, more disciplined than Antony, and more pure-in-heart than any of his fellow conspirators. It is the spirit of Brutus that has been shown to stand up against the spirit of Caesar. The action of Brutus has been generally proclaimed, both by historians and literary critics, as wrong, since whatever Caesar as King might have become he could hardly have brought more woe to his country than did the consequences of his assassination. As for Brutus' spirit, however, Shakespeare was at some pains to depict it as right.

What Shakespeare attempted in this characterization was extremely difficult: to depict his “antique Roman” with the qualities of firmness and fortitude which distinguish the Stoic hero without sacrificing those qualities of pity, love, grief, and vexation which distinguish him as Man. He was more successful, I think, in his delineation of a Henry V, where the emphasis could be reversed: the hardness necessary to a soldier is there superimposed upon an Englishman who by “art and nature” is more passionate than the Roman. In the reformed and mature Hal, the paradox of “the mirrour of all Christian kings” waging an aggressive war in the name of God and St. George is to our modern consciences (possibly) more easily reconcilable than that of a Roman Stoic “boldly but not wrathfully” killing a man he loves because he loves his country more.

How much of Shakespeare's portrait derives from his sources concerning Brutus' nature and philosophy and how much from his own sense of the combination of humanity and heroism which ought to be attributed to a man so generally acclaimed as noble must remain a conjecture. In any case, what emerges is one

whose blood and judgement are so well commedled
That [he is] not a pipe for fortune's finger
To sound what stop she please,

but who, at the same time, is not one who “in suffering all, … suffers nothing” (Ham. III.ii.70-76, passim). The complexity of Brutus' character, I suggest, is at least partially attributable to the fact that Shakespeare shared with his fellow Elizabethans an ambivalence toward the ancient virtue of constancy. What the Stoics claimed for themselves, the Elizabethan doubtless aspired to even while condemning it as a manifestation of the sin of Pride.

Brutus is not the wholly unimpassioned Wise Man posited by the Stoics: the fate of such a man would not be tragic. Neither is he subject to the passion of envy as is Cassius or of pride as is Caesar: such a man is not heroic. In his self-sufficiency and his unswerving pursuit of virtue as the ultimate goal, Brutus is Stoic; but in his warmth and gentleness and capacity for suffering, he is simply human. In picturing him thus, Shakespeare has given us a tragic hero whom we can admire even as we fear for him, whom we can love even as we pity him.

Elizabethan playwrights apparently assumed an audience familiar with the importance—and the rarity—of the proper admixture of the four elements in the microcosm (i.e., the human body) necessary to produce harmony within itself and with the macrocosm.15 While Brutus may never have heard the music of the spheres, that he possessed a “bounteous gift of nature” which distinguished him “from the bill / That writes [men] all alike” (Mac. III.i.100-01) is unequivocally asserted in the final encomium pronounced over his dead body:

… the elements [were]
So mix'd in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world ‘This was a man!’


  1. “Shakespeare's Roman Plays: 1900-1956,” Shakespeare Survey, 10 (1957), 9.

  2. There have, of course, been champions of Brutus since that time. For a fairly comprehensive bibliography of recent scholarship on this subject, see William R. Bowden, “The Mind of Brutus,” SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly], 17 (1966), 57-67.

  3. Shakespeare Studies, 2 (1966), 31.

  4. Jeronimo Osorio da Fonseca, Five Bookes of Civill and Christian Nobilitie (London: T. Marsh, 1576), sig. M3v. George Gifford, A Treatise of True Fortitude (London: J. Roberts f. J. Hardy, 1594), sig. B6v. Richard Barckley, A Discourse of the Felicitie of Man (London: R. Field f. Wm. Ponsonby, 1598), sig. V2r.

  5. See, e.g., Erasmus' Chiliades (London: E. Whitchurch, 1545) and William Baldwin's A Treatise of Morall Phylosophie, sixteen editions of which appeared between 1547 and 1620.

  6. Ludwig Edelstein's recent book, The Meaning of Stoicism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1966), corrects a number of misconceptions with reference to Stoicism; and Joseph Chang's “Shakespeare and Stoic Ethics” (Diss. Wisconsin 1965) points out the unorthodoxy of much of Seneca's Stoicism. Our interest here, however, is in what the Elizabethan understood this austere code to demand. For the basic tenets of Stoic discipline as they can be found in Elizabethan and Jacobean treatises see my “Rightly to Be Great,” ShakS [Shakespeare Survey], 1 (1965), esp. pp. 142-45. To those 16th- and 17th-century titles mentioned above (in text and footnotes), the following may be added, as particularly pertinent: George Gascoigne, The Dromme of Dommesday (London: J. Windet f. G. Cawood, 1586); Guillaume de la Perriere, Mirrour of Policie (London: A. Islip, 1598); John Downame, A Treatise of Anger (London: T. E. for W. Welby, 1609); Richard Hooker, A Remedy against Sorrow and Feare (Oxford: Jos. Barnes, 1612); Daniel Tuvil, Essayes, Morall and Theologicall (London: J. W. for E. Edgar, 1609); Gabriel Powel, The Resolved Christian (London: V. S. f. T. Bushel, 1600); Thomas Wright, The Passions of the Minde (London: V. Sims f. W. Burre, 1604).

  7. The Christian Manuell (London: J. C. f. T. Sturruppe, 1576), sig. DVIv.

  8. Seneca admits that such a wise man as the Stoics approve is seldom found; but, he says, “I believe that Cato … exceedeth by farre the Wiseman which is now in question.” The Workes of Lucius Annaeus Seneca, trans Tho. Lodge (London: W. Stansby, 1614), sig. Kkk2r.

  9. Plutarch's Lives, trans. Sir Thomas North, ed. W. H. D. Rouse, 16 vols. (London: Dent, 1898), IX, 243-44. Hereafter, volume and page number will be incorporated in the text.

  10. “Shakespeare's Plutarch,” SQ, 12 (1961), 342-51.

  11. See Jason Saunders, Justus Lipsius: The Philosophy of Renaissance Stoicism (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1955), p. xiii. In Plutarch, it is reiterated that “his intent was good,” that he was concerned for the general good, etc., while Caesar is described as one who “never seemed to care for any man, but for himself” and who gave “good and silver by handfuls … [only] to serve his turn …” (see VII, 216, IX, 277-88).

  12. Shakespeare also allows Brutus the language of hypocrisy, however, in II.i.175-77, when he demands that the heart remain untouched by anger while stirring up the hands to deeds which men generally assume cannot be done except in anger. That Brutus has actually bowed to the expedient of hypocrisy is much clearer in II.i.82.

  13. In “Julius Caesar in Revision,” SQ, 13 (1962), 187-205, Brents Sterling reviews a number of suggested explanations for the duplicate revelation of Portia's death.

  14. Although the terms Shakespeare uses here have Christian connotations (particularly the word “providence”), the sentiments could as easily be derived from Plato, whom Cato and Brutus are said by Plutarch to have admired.

  15. E.g., Marlowe's Tamburlaine speaks of “Nature that fram'd us of four elements, / Warring within our breasts for regiment” (Tamburlaine I.869-70); and Shakespeare's Cleopatra declares: “I am fire and air; my other elements I give to baser life” (V.ii.292-93). E. M. W. Tillyard's Elizabethan World Picture (London: Chatto and Windus, 1943) provides a thorough explanation of the “humours psychology” based upon the distribution of the four elements in the human body.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8903

SOURCE: Spevack, Marvin, ed. Introduction to Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare, 2nd ed., pp. 1-45. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

[In the following excerpt, Spevack surveys the dramatic structure, themes, and characters of Julius Caesar.]


Broadly seen, Shakespeare's concern with the private sphere is most evident in his comedies and poetry, with the public sphere in the history plays. Had Shakespeare not resumed writing tragedies with Julius Caesar, the two tragedies which preceded it, Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet, might mutatis mutandis be assigned to the histories and comedies respectively. But the question of genre need not be stretched or stressed. What is apparent from the Yorkist and Lancastrian tetralogies and King John is Shakespeare's interest in public affairs, in problems of power and rule, in the qualities of the ideal governor, in the confrontation of ideologies, in the clash of armies, in civil conflict, in the collision of the high and low members of the body politic, in history qua history. What is even more apparent, and very typical of Shakespeare, is the crystallisation of character in history, the emergence of individual personalities, and thus the inextricability of public and private affairs. This focus, especially since it involves a leading figure who is the key to the fate of all the others, serves to illuminate his individualised psychological features as they emerge from or respond to overt bustle and battle, secret conspiracy and counsel, society and isolation. This inexorable mixture of concerns is in itself a record of human events, one of the major forms of historiography. And the interest in individual responses is also an added structural device for perceiving and ordering the episodes of history. In other words, chronology is complemented by psychology, both contributing to, but not entirely constituting, the overall Weltanschauung of Julius Caesar, for what else emerges with the regularity of ritual—and thus a further structural device—is a sense of the national past, present, and future: that continuity which takes the form of consciousness of one's forefathers, patriotism towards the existing state, responsibility to posterity for the outcome of events. Heritage, in fact, is coupled with destiny, whether personal or national. And destiny, an enveloping dimension, involves more than the accurate report of an individual plight or the dramatisation of the tide of the times. For Shakespeare blends in the extra-sensory: portents, visions, and dreams. He employs metadramatic allusions, analogies between the theatre and the world, playing and being: in the individual, by such means as the distancing use of apostrophes and the large store of mnemonic devices; in the action, by the presence of allegory and the enactment of ritual. Interfused with and yet crowning all is the super-natural: the reference to, if not the superimposed presence of, something ‘outside’: the interplay of a superlunary realm, the operations of fate, the gods, mysterious and undeniable metaphysical forces.


Despite the fact that the action of Julius Caesar is chronological, a shadowing of the historical events outlined in Plutarch and other sources with some distinctive highlighting by Shakespeare, some critics have drawn attention to what appears to be a ‘two-peak’ action. Fleay was among the first to remark on the sharp division between the first three acts and the last two.1 The first part portrays a steadily increasing tension beginning with the quarrel between the tribunes and the plebeians, which not only opens but also foreshadows the ensuing dissension, as do the supernatural omens and portents on a parallel level; continuing with the ‘temptation’ of Brutus by Cassius and the solitary self-questioning and self-divisiveness of Brutus; mounting with the resoluteness and consolidation of the conspirators set against the menacing power and isolation of Caesar; growing complicated with the ambiguities of assessing persons and interpreting events and prophecies; coming to a crescendo in a ritual of assassination which takes place almost privately in the confines of the Capitol; then reverberating in the public display of the body, the perversion of the plebeians, the dispersal of the conspirators, and the burning of Rome—with the disposing of Cinna the Poet in 3.3 as a devastatingly ironic rendition of all that has led up to the climax.2 The second part, beginning with the likewise devastatingly ironic proscription scene (which rehearses in but a few lines the earlier manœuvring and ruthlessness and foreshadows personal and public conflicts to come), also mounts to a resolution, albeit in another key: the increasing political and military unrest and dissension reflected in the altercation and ultimate impossibility of reconciliation of Brutus and Cassius; the growing isolation of Brutus; the swift ascent and yet almost programmed decline of Antony against the growing prominence of a new young man, Octavius; the climactic battles with their ambiguous outcomes and mistaken consequences (like Cassius's suicide); and the final submission of Brutus (like the assassination of Caesar), at once a defeat and a victory—with the whole action of Acts 4 and 5, as in the first part, permeated by reminders of the past, portents regarding the present, and in the presiding ghost of Caesar the personal, political, and cosmological interactions and consequences of human actions.3

Fleay interpreted this structure formally, as the result of a combining of two plays, Caesar's Tragedy and Caesar's Revenge. Although few would agree with his attribution of the structure to dual authorship and the pressure of contemporary dramatic fashions, many do remark that the structure is somehow striking and unusual, for them another indication of the singularity of Julius Caesar. Still, the contours of the action, the dramatic and tragic structure, accord with normal critical as well as Shakespearean modes. The major climax or climaxes in roughly the middle of the play are standard Shakespearean practice in comedy, history, and tragedy; critics from Aristotle to Freytag to Frye would approvingly agree. The apparent anti-climax of what is roughly the fourth and early parts of the fifth acts is not only Shakespearean but also quite natural. Certainly, apart from what is often a convulsive and frantic resolution at the very end, it is hardly surprising that the intensity of the central climaxes cannot be matched: the strain would be too great for audience and author alike. Besides, it is not that there is a lull in the action but that a certain deepening of effect and reorganisation of forces take place. Thus Julius Caesar shares with Romeo and Juliet, recently finished, and Hamlet, in progress, a second half which is marked by the growing isolation of the hero, his estrangement from all around him, indeed his physical displacement to a foreign context (Romeo from Verona, Brutus from Rome, Hamlet from Denmark); by a series of smaller but nonetheless passionate altercations, acts of frustration leading (strangely) to a kind of resoluteness; by a feeling, after the main climaxes, of let-down, of chances missed or mismanaged or misadventured; by a growing awareness of the irreversibility of events and an acceptance of that situation: ‘I am fortune's fool’, Romeo admits; ‘There's a divinity that shapes our ends’, Hamlet acknowledges; ‘Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet’, Brutus concedes. The catastrophes and dénouements are, in their outlines, so similar as to be ritualistic: a final burst of energy—be it in a graveyard, on the field of battle, in a royal palace—an explosive physical action marked by error or misconception, an action so precipitate that the death of the hero seems self-willed, a suicide. And then the words of reconciliation, the apparent personal and public harmony in a final eulogy, the stillness and rest after the fray.

What is perhaps more precisely characteristic of Shakespearean tragedy, more striking and significant in Julius Caesar than in earlier tragedies, is the reversibility of public and private scenes. It is not so much that there are public and private scenes or that there is a conflict between a public and a private self as that the public scenes tend to develop private concerns as well as public ones, and that the private scenes are simultaneously public ones in intent and result. Notwithstanding modern designations of Julius Caesar—Roman play, revenge play, problem play, or whatever—this inside-out effect is certainly derived from the practice and indeed very nature of Shakespeare's history plays. Richard III's wooing of Lady Anne, widow of the heir to the throne, and Henry V's of Katherine, Princess of France, both employing the conventional military/sexual imagery of the courtship of comedy, are obvious and literal enactments of military and political victories, both soldier-kings portrayed as conqueror-husbands. Lady Anne's acceptance of Richard's ring after he has put up his sword and made his peace and the princess's serio-comic English lessons may be construed as signals of submission, as prefiguring the fall of the House of Lancaster to York in the one instance, the fall of France to England in the other. The lamenting choric diatribes against the ‘hell-hound’ Richard by the three mourning queens (Richard III 4.4.35 ff.), the garden scene (3.4) in Richard II, the tavern scenes in 1 and 2 Henry IV, to cite but three further examples from many, are public scenes in the guise of private ones. In Julius Caesar the great scenes between Brutus and Cassius are private in that the two are alone—as in 1.2.25-177 and, mirror-like, in 4.3.1-123—and asserting their personal, almost domestic claims on each other and yet public in their issues (the first encounter being played against the public celebration of Lupercalia and the second within the context of the military campaign against Octavius and Antony). Their subject is always self and society, not by turns but simultaneously.

Most prominent are two domestic events derived from Plutarch but very typically Shakespearean in the direct presentation of immediately recognisable intimate scenes. Rulers who are uneasy about their crowns are the subjects of Shakespeare's histories and tragedies. They are characteristically sleepless, a state which portrays less their agitation or weakness or self-doubt than their isolation. In such instances Webster may have shown the skull beneath the skin, but Shakespeare is likely to show first the nightcap beneath the crown.4 Both Brutus and Caesar, in the night, alone and awake, are joined by their sleepless wives, Portia and Calpurnia, in adjoining scenes, 2.1 and 2.2, the mighty Caesar in his nightgown. Portia's concern for her husband's strange behaviour, the possibility of his catching cold in the dank morning, her desire to know his ‘secret’ may be traceable to her marriage vow, ‘Which did incorporate and make us one’ (2.1.273), just as it may explain Lady Hotspur's lighter inquisitiveness about her husband's likewise strange and secretive behaviour (1 Henry IV 2.3.37 ff.): both husbands have left the marriage bed, both wives are alarmed by the ‘portents’ signified by the odd behaviour, both use the adjective ‘heavy’ to describe the situation. The argument about husband and wife being ‘incorporate’—made one—is likewise used by both wives (as it had been from the beginning of Shakespeare's career in Adriana's ‘undividable incorporate’ (Comedy of Errors 2.2.122)). What is remarkable about the private scene is its inflection of the public theme: an inquiry into the nature of man's relationship to himself and to the world about him, of rulers to subjects, of nobles to nobles, of husbands to wives.5 The key words are ‘unity’, ‘incorporate’, ‘one’—to which may be added even the polarities of disposition and weather, ‘ungentle’ against ‘gentle’, the ‘dank morning’ against the ‘wholesome bed’, among many others. And with special reference to the conspiracy as well is the resounding of the concern for secrecy, disclosure, keeping counsel. Above all, the keystone of personal and political behaviour, as of marriage, receives its fullest expression in the dominant word ‘constancy’, from the beginning to the end of Shakespeare's career, in poems, comedies, histories, and tragedies, at the heart of the Shakespearean ethic.

The nocturnal scene between Caesar and Calpurnia, which follows directly, deepens the concern. Like Portia, Calpurnia is worried about her husband's well-being. She too, who ‘never stood on ceremonies’ (2.2.13), is made uneasy by portents and omens. She has had bad dreams. Like others in the play—the Soothsayer, Decius, Antony—she is an interpreter and, more important perhaps, a proposer of action based on her assessment of ‘these things … beyond all use’ (25). She knows her husband: ‘Your wisdom is consumed in confidence’ (49). Her judgement, however, is not merely a wife's; it is the judgement of the conspirators. It is the judgement, further, upon which is based that tragedy, formal and human, of the fall of princes. Her reaction to a world of uncertainty and change is traditional: ‘And I do fear them’ (26), echoing or anticipating what constitutes a Shakespearean commonplace, as in ‘Be wary then, best safety lies in fear’, Laertes' caution to Ophelia (Hamlet 1.3.43). Calpurnia's specific advice is not unlike that which Brutus says must govern the conspirators: ‘Hide it [the “monstrous visage” of conspiracy] in smiles and affability’ (2.1.82). Calpurnia's attitude is climaxed in the last words she speaks in the play: they constitute a political message in a private formula. Emphasising Caesar's decision not to go to the Capitol, she instructs Decius to ‘Say he is sick’ (2.2.65).

The simultaneity of public and private concerns implies still another overlapping of structural and thematic consequence. By most medieval and Renaissance historians and poets, history was regarded as a window to the past, the present, and the future. More accurately, perhaps, it was, on the one hand, continuous—updating, the adding of new figures and new scenes, was the standard practice. It was, on the other hand, still to a good measure figural—omnitemporal (‘synchrony’ might be a better translation than ‘omnitemporalness’ of Erich Auerbach's Jederzeitlichkeit), if not in the view that all events in universal history are contained in the one great Christian drama from the Creation to the Last Judgement, then at least in the general habit of thinking and organising human experience in this manner, as is evident—inter alia—in the persistence of mythical or legendary personages and events in Elizabethan historiography and of course in the popularity of allegory.6 This penchant towards synchrony is apparent in various ways in Julius Caesar, affecting structure, theme, and style.

A dominant concern in the play is time. For various dramatic reasons Shakespeare … takes liberties with time: it is his general practice to modify, to compress or expand, time as need be. Within the play, moreover, there is an inordinate interest in time, the vocabulary of which is extensive, the major word-classes amply represented. Apart from the obvious but powerful employment of night and day (affording a context, setting off and emphasising many of the polarities in the play) and the frequent references to the time of day (literally and symbolically useful for events dependent upon synchronisation and precision, like conspiracies, assassinations, battles), the characters and action are not simply looking at an event but are looking back and looking forward in time. Looking back is not a nostalgic view of Rome in the good old days or an easy appeal to patriotic sentiments. For one thing, the Brutus ‘once that would have brooked / Th'eternal devil to keep his state in Rome’ (1.2.159-60) is not merely Brutus's ancestor, he is also his namesake—a neat way of superimposing the past upon the present.7 For another, history superimposes other ancestors, legendary figures of identification, like Aeneas (ever-recurring in Elizabethan times), even larger than life- or legend-size figures, like the Colossus. Similarly, looking forward is not a short-sighted view of Rome in the time of or just after Caesar, concentrating on political and military matters, on ‘who's in, who's out’; it involves more than what will happen tomorrow, on the Ides of March. The future finds expression in omens and prophecies. The future is connected with the present, as with the past, but not simply by the ceaseless movement of the clock—‘from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe, / And then from hour to hour, we rot and rot’, as Touchstone puts it (As You Like It 2.7.26-7)—but by ‘irrational’ and unpredictable forces. The portents and predictions, signs and spirits—the whole assembly of melodramatic clap-trap devices and appearances—are more than Shakespeare's employment of the paraphernalia of the revenge play or some other fashion of the time: they are his expression of something beyond as well as within. In the seemingly cold and calculating Roman world, and for all the rational planning and logical deductions, they prove an undeniable and inexorable force of the future in the present. For the future is not what is to come but the working out of destiny in the moment.

Given this context, it is not necessary to fault Shakespeare for using anachronisms (like the clock striking at 2.1.191) or to apologise for him by pointing out that some are found in North and Amyot or that he was too concerned with more important matters to be bothered by trifles or that he was habitually careless. They are as natural to the historiography he was reflecting as they were to the dramatic tradition which he inherited, as, indeed, to the visual arts around him and of course to the architecture of theatres (not to mention the name and motto of his own theatre) as well as to matters ranging from theatrical gesture and enunciation to staging and costuming.8 In all, there was hardly purity or singleness of form or focus, the age itself tending towards practical eclecticism or at least the co-existence of various styles, even opposites, which marks an age of transition. Seen both within the immediate dramatic context and the larger historiographic one, the discussion of anachronisms as lapses or curiosities is by and large irrelevant.

A further dimension, connecting the structural with the stylistic, is to be found in inflections of a self-conscious historicity practised by the characters themselves. They are not merely characters in a play but characters who seem, at crucial moments, to be aware of the fact that they are characters performing and that what they are performing is being viewed by others and will be so in the future.9 This added dimension, which conveys a certain historical verisimilitude, takes various forms: in actions, stance, even grammar and vocabulary.

Actions of this kind are to be found in enacted rituals, like the Lupercalia, in which the actors assume roles; in Antony's historical identification of Caesar—‘Thou art the ruins of the noblest man / That ever livèd in the tide of times’ (3.1.256-7)—and then his assumption of the role of augurer in interpreting the wounds ‘Which like dumb mouths do ope their ruby lips / To beg the voice and utterance of my tongue’ (3.1.260-1); in Brutus's abstracting and transforming the literal event—‘Let's be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius’ (2.1.166)10—and in Cassius's famous prophetic utterance in which the ritual becomes the mythic:

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


To which Brutus replies, with some irony (Shakespeare can seldom resist the temptation to make fun of his profession) about the way the scene will be played: ‘How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport’. Actions of this kind are also to be found in the numerous plays-within-plays, most obviously in Cassius's re-enacting (in 1.2), with dialogue and stage business, his saving of the drowning Caesar; and in the quadruple presentation of Caesar's refusing the crown in 1.2: its historicity is confirmed in the first instance by off-stage sounds commented on by Cassius and Brutus and, in the second, by the playlet of Casca, who re-enacts the scene he has witnessed, supplying it synaesthetically with the sight, sound, smell, feel, and taste of the off-stage event. Among many other examples—randomly chosen from some not often noticed—are the ominous and unusual events surrounding and thus punctuating the literal actions: the universal perspective of ‘The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes’ (2.2.31); Brutus's assurance to the plebeians that ‘The question of [Caesar's] death is enrolled in the Capitol’ (3.2.32-3); the strikingly ritualistic and self-conscious flyting, even the formula describing it, ‘Words before blows’ (5.1.27); Cassius's reference to the conquered being ‘led in triumph / Through the streets of Rome’ (5.1.108-9); the action-within-the-action of Pindarus's report of Titinius's plight (5.3.28-32); and Brutus's delivering posterity's eulogy of himself for the act of suicide he is about to perform:

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


These performed or visualised actions-within-the-actions are complemented by a certain histrionic stance and expression. Quite apart from Shakespeare's obvious intention to write a noble, a Roman, play11 (the remoteness of the original event and the glamour of the illustrious characters adding an immediate statuesqueness to their presence), Shakespeare employs certain linguistic devices to stress the distance of the characters from the event. Inset speeches, notably the funeral orations of Brutus and Antony, are, as various analyses have shown,12 rhetorical exercises following traditional models, not the characters' normal discourse. A further dimensions is added, in the one, by the fact that Brutus's oration is delivered almost in a vacuum of formality, and the reaction of the plebeians appropriately mechanical; and, in the other, by Antony's vigorously self-conscious awareness that he is delivering a speech, his attention to the effect of his speech as he delivers it, indeed his comments during his speech on the response of his audience. Another form of distancing is evident in the numerous images and references from the theatre itself: actors and players acting parts, plays, scenes, shows, spectacles in a theatre to audiences who applaud, clap, hiss, hoot. Still another form of distancing is to be found in the numerous apostrophes, especially those beginning with ‘O’ and addressing abstractions—‘O grief’ (1.3.111), ‘O conspiracy’ (2.1.77), ‘O constancy’ (2.4.6), ‘O judgement’ (3.2.96), ‘O murd'rous slumber’ (4.3.267), ‘O hateful error’ (5.3.67), ‘O error’ (5.3.69)—as well as personalising places, as in ‘O Rome, I make thee promise’ (2.1.56) and ‘O world’ (3.1.207, 208).

The use of the third person in reference to oneself serves likewise to supplement the actual person with another whose being and actions are somehow separate and observable, co-existing, but on another level of the action. This dissociation—not necessarily pathological but certainly stressing the simultaneity of public and private selves—is not solely evident in Caesar, though practised by the historical Caesar in his own writings (as it was by Thucydides) to give them an official or objective character. It is more than just the royal prerogative: ‘The Queen is not amused’ may be taken lightly, but the captured Richard II's ‘What must the king do now?’ is quite another matter. Caesar may refer to himself as Caesar nineteen times in the play—almost always evoking a negative response in critics13—but others, interestingly enough, refer to themselves in the third person as well: among the major characters, Antony three times, Brutus thirteen times, Casca once, Cassius fourteen times, and Portia once.14 In addition to the psychological and other implications,15 the overall effect is a certain stateliness, a classical look, a consciousness on the part of the actors that they are acting in a not so everyday context. The audience too is constantly reminded that it is in the theatre, that it is not witnessing the action through the naturalistic invisible fourth wall, and in fact that it is observing actions which are themselves being observed, and, given these conditions, that these actions are not so much literal as exemplary: that, in other words, ‘the purpose of playing’, as Hamlet, who should know, puts it, ‘whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure’ (Hamlet 3.2.20-4).

Hamlet's characterisation implies more than a literal rendition in what is usually called a naturalistic manner. The ‘nature’ he refers to is general nature, the recognisable and repeated outlines of the human experience. It is not surprising that Shakespeare adapts his style to frame and enforce, through moralising didacticism, the enacted events. At times he takes a small hint from Plutarch and phrases it in the manner of a sententious statement. Plutarch's explanation for Caesar's not consenting to ‘have a guard for the safety of his person’ is to report that Caesar ‘said it was better to die once than always to be afraid of death’ (p. 155); Shakespeare doubles the sentiment:

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


In Plutarch, Caesar, ‘talk falling out amongst them, reasoning what death was best … cried out aloud: “Death unlooked for”’ (p. 158); Shakespeare transfers the sentiment to Brutus and transforms it tellingly: ‘That we shall die we know: 'tis but the time, / And drawing days out, that men stand upon’ (3.1.99-100). Brutus, sententiously, becomes the main spokesman for the philosophical and tragic locus of the play. In responding to Messala's report of the death of Portia, Brutus (in a much-discussed and often misunderstood response16) says

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


Before the fateful battle, Brutus intones:

                                                            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.



The purpose of the sententiae is not confined to theatrical distancing by means of mnemonic phrasing, nor to didactic moralising. The stylistic devices serve to inflect the all-embracing theme of the play—the tension between the ‘tide of times’ and ‘the necessary end’. In Julius Caesar change is so often inflected and stressed that the play becomes, on all levels, a dramatisation not merely of instances of change, however drastic, but of uncertainty and instability in the affairs of men. From the opening scene, with its emphasis as much on the change of heroes (from Pompey to Caesar) as on the changeability of the plebeians, to the confusion over the outcome of the battle at Philippi and the ‘mistaken’ suicide of Cassius, there is hardly an action or scene which does not give evidence of change. It may be in alchemical images, as in Cassius's appraisal of Brutus—‘I see / Thy honourable metal may be wrought / From that it is disposed’ (1.2.297-9)—or Casca's ‘His countenance, like richest alchemy, / Will change to virtue and to worthiness’ (1.3.159-60), both echoes of the tribunes’ indictment of the fickle commoners: ‘See where their basest metal be not moved’ (1.1.60). It may be in the countless references to standing and falling, ebbing and flowing, and the ‘full circle of events’.17 It is found in the construction of scenes which often consist of opposing interpretations of a particular issue or event: portents and omens, for example, are normally interpreted in dramatically opposite ways, either by being ignored (‘He is a dreamer’, says Caesar of the Soothsayer) or by being advocated by two or more juxtaposed characters (as in Calpurnia's and Decius's advice to Caesar to avoid or not to avoid going to the Capitol). Or apparent incompatibles are presented side by side, producing not simply a lack of clarity or an ambiguity but an inevitable collision and even impossibility: Pompey may give way to Caesar, Caesar to the conspirators, Brutus and Cassius to Octavius and Antony, Antony to Octavius, each change doubtful in its stated or implied motivation. Neither ambiguity per se nor irony alone will suffice for the concurrence of Caesar, ‘the foremost man of all this world’ (4.3.22), of Brutus, ‘the noblest Roman of them all’ (5.5.68), and Cassius ‘The last of all the Romans … It is impossible that ever Rome / Should breed thy fellow’ (5.3.99-101).

The fluidity and unpredictability of the action is reinforced by Shakespeare's minute attention to the motivation of the characters. Of course, the much-discussed and widely accepted discussion of a deliberate ambiguity of response supplies some part of the explanation. But it focusses largely on the response of the audience, not on a character's own response to his situation. Caesar may be an enigma: to some critics he is an arrogant tyrant, to others he is more sinned against than sinning.18 But Caesar himself has few doubts about his role. Even Brutus, whom Cassius does not so much tempt as confirm in that which has already been in his thoughts, has doubts not so much about the assassination as about how it is to be done and how it is to be linguistically phrased so as to be publicly (as well as personally) acceptable. What seems to unite all the characters, to be the motor of their thoughts and actions, is self-justification, which serves both for self-characterisation and, most important here, as a way of structuring the overall unsatisfactory—that is, unstable—situation. The important characters tend to define themselves in terms of a fixed trait. And that trait, which is to focus and clarify, to shackle accidents, to stem the tide, is constancy. Whether used naïvely or shrewdly, simply or ironically, constancy—like ‘true’ in 1 Henry IV—is the major dramatic, psychological, social, and political ideal, whatever its ultimate consequences.19 Caesar's repeated application of it to himself is answered by the repeated stabs of the conspirators, and his ‘Et tu, Brute’ seems his surprised, puzzled, and certainly disappointed response to Brutus's lack of constancy. Brutus's constancy to his Roman heritage binds him to a course involving an act resembling regicide, if not parricide. Cassius's constancy to his own course is the basis of his bond to Brutus and at the same time the cause of their estrangement. Antony emerges as individual and leader when he recognises his constancy to Caesar. Portia, in her nocturnal scene with Brutus, apostrophises constancy as the key to all human relationships. Brutus's last and most comforting awareness, the crowning assertion of the unchanging value of constancy, is the prologue to his suicide: ‘Countrymen, / My heart doth joy that yet in all my life / I found no man but he was true to me’ (5.5.33-5). The absoluteness of the statement—‘in all my life’, ‘no man’, ‘true’—is less the result of Brutus's naïve or blind idealism, less an ironic reflection on his unsuccessful action, than the assertion of the only satisfactory answer to the way the world is: This above all …

Between the prevalence of change and the desire for constancy lies the world which is Rome. One response to the gap, a major psychological and existential one, is fear. Plutarch's not infrequent use of the word and its inflections … is expanded by Shakespeare to 41 instances spoken by no fewer than sixteen characters and covering the semantic spectrum from timorousness to concern to apprehension to dread. In the entire canon this total is surpassed only by Macbeth (45) and Richard III (43). Since all but three occurrences are in the first three acts, in which are found all the usages by the two leading practitioners, Cassius (nine) and Caesar (seven), the effect on the portrayal of Rome needs little discussion. Another major mode of response, perhaps less noticed but also to be found in Plutarch and emphasised by Shakespeare, is the verb ‘prevent’, the noun ‘prevention’. It appears at six crucial moments: it is uttered by Brutus in soliloquy as his answer to the ‘question’ of Caesar's nature being changed if he is crowned: ‘So Caesar may. / Then lest he may, prevent’ (2.1.27-8); it is spoken again by Brutus in his soliloquy on conspiracy: ‘Not Erebus itself were dim enough / To hide thee from prevention’ (2.1.84-5); it is used twice by Cassius, once as justification for the murder of Antony as well as Caesar (2.1.158-61) and again, just before the assassination, as he nervously urges Casca to ‘be sudden, for we fear prevention’ (3.1.19) and elicits Brutus's ‘Cassius, be constant’ (22); it is spoken by Caesar urging Cimber not to kneel, but, ironically perhaps, has the effect of a kind of prelude to the hubristic utterances (punctuated by the repetition of ‘constant’) which programme his death; and finally and climactically it is characterised by Brutus as the opposite of his Stoic philosophy: ‘But I do find it cowardly and vile, / For fear of what might fall, so to prevent / The time of life’ (5.1.103-5). ‘Prevent’—to anticipate and take precautions, to act before or more quickly than another—is essentially a defensive reaction to a real or imaginary threat, reflecting insecurity and characterising a world of poised tensions and dangerous instability. It is the mark of a world of mistrust and conspiracies. It is the ally of fear, the enemy of constancy.

On a larger scale the opposition in the play which embraces ‘fear-prevent’ and ‘constant’ is between the rational and the irrational. Rome may be cold and sober and calculating, with marble columns and statues, and in the fields of Philippi the battles are drawn up and ordered in the formal Roman manner, but both Rome and Philippi are beset with ‘things that do presage’, which wondrously and irresistibly come true. Against the plots and fears and preventions are the portents and omens and prophecies. Against conspirators are set soothsayers; against soldiers, seers; against arithmetic, alchemy; against calculation, coincidence; against arrangement, accident; against counsel, ceremony; and against ratiocination, divination. If constancy is the desired end—and there is little doubt that it is—then the answer to the turbulence which marks the action of the play lies, paradoxically perhaps, not in the rational but in the irrational. For reason, be it in Brutus's attempts to justify his part in the assassination or in Antony's to justify his seizure of power, is essentially limited. It cannot foresee or prevent miscalculations or mischances. And it may itself be suspect, be not so much ratiocination as rationalisation, a way of phrasing one's behaviour in a manner which is publicly and personally agreeable: as in the motivation of the conspirators, in which the line between personal grievance and public policy is difficult to discern, in the impossibility of their separating Caesar the man from Caesar the tyrant (despite Brutus's rather stiff and contrived attempt), in the response of the plebeians to Antony's demagoguery (they receive ‘reasons’—the physical testimony of the will, the parks and money—for supporting Caesar with which to cover their fickleness and greed), and in the majestically ‘rational’ madness of the mob which dispatches Cinna the Poet: after rejecting the ‘reason’ that Cinna the Poet is not Cinna the Conspirator, they find the ‘reason’ for their actions in the quality of his verse.

What truth, what permanence, what constancy exists in the play is connected with the ‘irrational’. The omens and portents and prophecies are ambiguous only when men attempt to explain them rationally. To the seers they are clear. They come true. And it must be added that among the soothsayers are Calpurnia, whose advice, which is drawn from ‘things … beyond all use’ (2.2.25)—she is often played as a Cassandra-type figure—would have preserved Caesar, had he followed it; Antony, who, wondrously inspired by the wounds of Caesar, recognises his destiny; and in the end Brutus himself, who realises that his fate is in the hands of the spirit of Caesar

The ghost of Caesar hath appeared to me
Two several times by night, at Sardis once
And this last night here in Philippi fields.
I know my hour is come.


It is the power of the spirit that Brutus acknowledges:

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


The might of the dead Caesar is continuous: ‘yet’ spans then and now and to be. It reverses the rational attempts of man: their swords are turned against themselves. It dictates, as the ultima ratio, as the means of overcoming chance and the limitations of reason, suicide. Against the harshness and meanness of the world—its jaggedness stressed in a dominant cluster of verbs describing carving, chopping, cutting, dismembering, hacking, hewing, piercing, plucking, pricking, quartering, rending, riving, running through, scratching, splitting, spurring, stabbing, stinging, striking, tearing, thrusting, whetting, wounding; its aggressiveness evident in the frequent images of strife and storm; its garish ugliness in the semantic fields of fire and blood;20 its infirmity in references to sickness21—against all this, and furthermore against the impact of impending time and the urgency of action, against agitation and prevention, only the tranquillity of death assures constancy. It is more than the necessary end: it is the noble end. It is the act which is best described by the often repeated patrician adjective ‘gentle’.

The continuity with Richard II, Romeo, and Hamlet—in terms both of person and of play—is obvious. In Julius Caesar the essential tragedy of the human condition is once again unflinchingly depicted: all are fortune's fools. In a larger sense all the characters share the same destiny. For Julius Caesar, which begins with references to the supplanting of Pompey by Caesar and ends with the supplanting of Brutus by the newly arrived Octavius (who, in still another of the many successions, is apparently edging out the not quite established Antony), contains many tragedies or rather victims of relentless change. No one is spared in the explicit Zusammenschau (to use Auerbach's term) which contains all the tragedies. Plutarch's lives are, in contrast, ‘parallel’ and sequential. Tragedy is implicit at best, for in Plutarch human affairs can be managed in different ways by different personalities; opposites can be resolved in composites. Both Caesar and Brutus can be praised: they exist side by side; preferences are not prescriptive. For Shakespeare the essential unmanageability of human affairs is the core of tragedy; opposites are polarised and irreconcilable except in death. Caesar and Brutus are entangled; choice is obligatory.


In this light it is perhaps not surprising that so much critical attention has been paid to the question of who the hero of the play is. But the discussion is nevertheless puzzling. For it cannot seriously be doubted that Brutus is the focus—dramatically, psychologically, politically, and morally. It is no accident that he is present throughout: in the beginning he is the motor of the action; in the end his death resolves the action. Further proof, though abundant, would be tedious. And little is to be gained by such well-meaning Solomonic distinctions as ‘Caesar is the titular hero, Brutus the dramatic hero’: naming a play after a character does not necessarily confer hero status, as a handful of Shakespeare's histories demonstrates. That many of his plays are named for the main characters or characters who do turn out to be the heroes or heroines does not of itself solve the problem of the title of this play. What is really at issue in the matter of the hero, especially since it is Caesar or Brutus who is proposed, is politics. Hudson's often-quoted appraisal, made more than a hundred years ago, is still relevant and typical: ‘As here represented, [Caesar] is indeed little better than a grand, strutting piece of puff-paste; and when he speaks, it is very much in the style of a glorious vapourer and braggart, full of lofty airs and mock-thunder.’22 Putting aside the question of how Caesar's minuscule speaking part and his undistinguished vocabulary could account for this portrait, or the question of how critics can talk of the play's classical dignity and manner23 in the light of a thrasonical24 Caesar, or how an infatuate could be eulogised by Brutus, worried about by Calpurnia, and revered by Antony—putting aside such questions, Hudson attempts to account for the ‘contradiction between Caesar as known and Caesar as rendered’ by musing that he ‘sometimes thought that the policy of the drama may have been to represent Caesar, not as he was indeed [“that colossal man”], but as he must have appeared to the conspirators … For Caesar was literally too great to be seen by them.’25 From this view—which conveniently serves as well to clear the way for the hero Brutus—it is but a step towards the depersonalising of Caesar. ‘The real man Caesar disappears for himself under the greatness of the Caesar myth’,26 writes Edward Dowden a short while later—from which Paul Stapfer develops the formula for a major portion of ensuing criticism: ‘It is not the spirit of any one man, but the spirit of a new era about to begin—the spirit of Cæsarism—that fills Shakespeare's play and gives it its unity and moral significance.’27 Indeed, much of the discussion of the conflicting claims on behalf of Caesar and Brutus as hero has in reality dealt with the conflict between monarchism and republicanism, tyranny and freedom, dictatorship and democracy, or any of the political polarities which, not unexpectedly, frame practically all stage presentations. Caesar as Hitler, Brutus as Che Guevara, are no longer uncommon.

This is not to say, however, that Marx has replaced Freud. On the contrary, perhaps the major technical achievement of the play is its remarkable sense of individual character and the interaction of characters (unlike Plutarch, who tends to concentrate on one, subordinating the others often to the point of reducing or even eliminating the contours of their personalities). And the attractive complexity of Brutus is the most interesting aspect of the play, for it combines all the qualities associated with heroes—adjectives like ‘noble’ and ‘gentle’; an inner life made known through soliloquy, which as it delineates also separates; self-doubts and rationalisations; the inevitable attempt to impose a personal set of values on a public one. Above all, Brutus is the only character to whom the heroic criterion, a moral sense, is searchingly and deeply applied. Those who reject him do so on the basis of moral failings, but they have no other serious candidate. Or they propose that there is no hero at all.28 Or that plot is of major importance, not character.29 Or, as is the case with the difficulty of pinpointing the political intent of the play, they make a virtue of the difficulty of defining characters or their relationships. Not untypical is Mark Hunter's view that the ‘personal interest in this play, the appeal of individual character, is not concentrated, as it is in the normally constructed tragedies, on one dominating figure which overshadows all the rest. It is distributed.’30 Very early on, many critics have responded by proposing that ambiguity is the major intent, if not theme, of the play: from Gustav Freytag (commenting on actors' different interpretations of the same character: ‘Who is right? Each of them’31) and Michael Macmillan (‘The poet's aim was to produce … an even balance in our sympathies, so that they should waver to and fro, inclining alternately to Caesar and the conspirators’, p. xxv) to Ernest Schanzer (treating Julius Caesar as a ‘problem’ play, one which evokes ‘uncertain and divided responses … in the minds of the audience’32) and Mildred Hartsock (‘Julius Caesar is not a problem play, but a play about a problem: the difficulty—perhaps the impossibility—of knowing the truth of men and of history’33). This drift, it is important to note, emphasises the inextricability of character and politics, as is evident in the personalising adjectives applied to a political situation in so typical a formulation as Hartsock's ‘Is Caesar an egocentric, dangerous dictator—a genuine threat to Rome; or is he the “noblest man / That ever lived”?’34

Whether the entire presentation is indeed ambiguous or whether the view is mainly based on a modern relativistic reaction away from either/or solutions or from solutions altogether, the critical discussion of ‘good’, ‘bad’, or ‘mixed’ characters and political constellations has been relentless.35 The answer, in short, is elusive. This is no small tribute to a ‘simple’, ‘straightforward’ and yet ‘singular’ play.


  1. Frederick Gard Fleay, A Chronicle History of the Life and Work of William Shakespeare, 1886, p. 215.

  2. Nicholas Brooke, Shakespeare's Early Tragedies, 1968, p. 158, calls it a ‘final emblem … the brutal little farce’; John W. Velz, ‘“If I were Brutus now …”: role-playing in Julius Caesar’, S.St. 4 (1968), 153, a ‘pathetic microcosm of the assassination’. For an attempted application in Christian terms, see Norman N. Holland, ‘The “Cinna” and “Cynicke” episodes in Julius Caesar’, SQ 11 (1960), 439-44.

  3. The interrelationship—repetitions, parallels, mirrorings, pairings, and foreshadowings—of the first three and the last two acts has from the beginning been one of the favourite subjects of Julius Caesar criticism—see, for example, Albert Lindner, ‘Die dramatische Einheit im Julius Cäsar’, SJ 2 (1867), 90-5; John Palmer, ‘Marcus Brutus’, in his Political Characters of Shakespeare, 1945, pp. 1-64, esp. pp. 33-46; Adrien Bonjour, The Structure of ‘Julius Caesar’, 1958, p. 30, n. 33; R. A. Yoder, ‘History and the histories in Julius Caesar’, SQ 24 (1973), 309-27, esp. pp. 311-14.

  4. The Tatler (no. 53, 11 August 1709; reprinted in Anglistica & Americana 100, 1970, p. 33) finds Caesar's appearance in his nightgown in no way diminishing that ‘great soul’; on the contrary, it is enhanced since ‘his genius was above … mechanic methods of showing greatness’.

  5. Robert S. Miola, Shakespeare's Rome, 1983, p. 97: ‘These two wives represent forces and ideals crucial to the city … Their anguish conveys Shakespeare's increasingly critical conception of Rome and Roman values.’

  6. Although a distinction is to be made between medieval and Renaissance historiography, it is undeniable that they co-existed, to one degree or another, in the time of Shakespeare. See, for example, R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History, 1946, pp. 46-58; Irving Ribner, ‘The Tudor history play: an essay in definition’, PMLA 69 (1954), 591-609 (esp. p. 602), and his The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare, 1957, esp. pp. 21-6; and J. G. A. Pocock, ‘The sense of history in Renaissance England’, in William Shakespeare: His World, His Work, His Influence, ed. John F. Andrews, 3 vols., 1985, 1, 143-57; for views of Roman history in Shakespeare's time, T. J. B. Spencer, ‘Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Romans’, S.Sur. 10 (1957), 27-38, and J. Leeds Barroll, ‘Shakespeare and Roman history’, MLR 53 (1958), 327-43. It is self-evident that Shakespeare was very much in the tradition of the older, providential view of history. H. B. Charlton, Shakespearian Tragedy, 1948, pp. 72-4, finds evidence for this view both in Philemon Holland, Plutarch's Elizabethan translator, and indeed in Plutarch's Morals.

  7. Ralph Berry, ‘Julius Caesar: a Roman tragedy’, DR 61 (1981), 327, mentions the ‘obsessive awareness of ancestry’ as an important feature of the Romanness, the ‘communal identity’ of the Romans: ‘what the Romans imitate is their ancestry; what they aspire to be is the reflection of the dead’ (335).

  8. G. Wilson Knight, The Imperial Theme, 1931, pp. 35-6, feels many of the anachronisms referring to ‘ordinary things’ contribute to a ‘peculiar sensitiveness to human appearance and human “spirit”: a vivid apprehension of human life’ (p. 34).

  9. For various views on the function of role-playing, Velz, ‘Role-playing in Julius Caesar’, p. 150: ‘Numerous characters … adopt, or consider adopting, roles which other characters have played’; Thomas F. Van Laan, Role-Playing in Shakespeare, 1978, p. 153: ‘the act of projecting a representation of the self which is superior to the reality is … without doubt the most characteristic act of the play’; Berry, ‘Julius Caesar’, p. 329: ‘The Romans are playing the roles, not of others, but of themselves.’

  10. The most often mentioned treatment of ritual and ceremony is Brents Stirling, ‘“Or else this were a savage spectacle”’, PMLA 66 (1951), 765-74.

  11. Chambers, Shakespeare, 1, 399, speaks for the many: ‘Shakespeare is deliberately experimenting in a classical manner, with an extreme simplicity both of vocabulary and of phrasing.’ For the style of Plutarch and its connection to Shakespeare, see Reuben A. Brower, ‘The discovery of Plutarch: Julius Caesar’, in his Hero & Saint: Shakespeare and the Graeco-Roman Tradition, 1971, pp. 204-38.

  12. See, for example, Walther Azzalino, ‘Stilkundliche Betrachtung der Reden des Brutus und des Antonius in Shakespeares “Julius Caesar” (III, 2)’, Neuphilologische Monatsschrift 11 (1940), 249-71; for Brutus's Forum speech based on the principles of Quintilian and Cicero, Maria Wickert, ‘Antikes Gedankengut in Shakespeares Julius Cäsar’, SJ 82/83 (1948), 11-33; for wider ranging applications: Jean Fuzier, ‘Rhetoric versus rhetoric: a study of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, act III, scene 2’, CahiersE 5 (1974), 25-65; John W. Velz, ‘Orator and Imperator in Julius Caesar: style and the process of Roman history’, S.St. 15 (1982), 55-75; Anne Barton, ‘Julius Caesar and Coriolanus: Shakespeare's Roman world of words’, in Shakespeare's Craft, ed. Philip H. Highfill, Jr, 1982, pp. 24-47.

  13. Already evident in earlier critics, like Edward Dowden, Shakespere: A Critical Study of His Mind and Art, 1897, p. 285: ‘He is a numen to himself, speaking of Caesar in the third person, as if of some power above and behind his consciousness.’ This stylistic feature, illeism, which Shakespeare ‘may have thought characteristically Roman’, is mentioned in John W. Velz, ‘The ancient world in Shakespeare: authenticity or anachronism? A retrospect’, S.Sur. 31 (1978), 9-10, in his larger treatment of what Rome was to Shakespeare (7-12).

  14. The exact references are to be found in the concordances to the speakers' parts, in volume 3 of my Complete and Systematic Concordance to the Works of Shakespeare, 9 vols., 1968-80. The statistics mentioned do not include the instances of ambiguity between the third person in direct discourse and the vocative discussed in the Commentary at 2.1.255, 3.1.76, 3.1.77.

  15. For various functions of names, see, for example, R. A. Foakes, ‘An approach to Julius Caesar’, SQ 5 (1954), 265-8; Lawrence Danson, Tragic Alphabet: Shakespeare's Drama of Language, 1974, pp. 61-3; Berry, ‘Julius Caesar’, p. 328.

  16. See below.

  17. See, for example, Bonjour, Structure, pp. 62-73; John W. Velz, ‘Undular structure in “Julius Caesar”’, MLR 66 (1971), 21-30; Foakes, ‘An approach’, p. 260.

  18. The literature on the subject is vast, discussed by practically all the works on the Reading List (p. 184 below). For a survey of the way Caesar was viewed in the dramatic, especially Senecan, tradition in the Renaissance, see Harry Morgan Ayres, ‘Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in the light of some other versions’, PMLA 25 (1910), 183-227, and T. J. B. Spencer, ‘Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra’, in Shakespeare: Select Bibliographical Guides, ed. Stanley Wells, 1973, pp. 203-15. For the Caesar ‘Mythos’ from his time to the Renaissance, see [Geoffrey] Bullough [ed.], [Narrative and Dramatic] Sources [of Shakespeare], V, 4-25.

  19. For ‘the presence of opposite implications within the single word’—among them ‘constant’—see Robert C. Reynolds, ‘Ironic epithet in Julius Caesar’, SQ 24 (1973), 330. To the list may be added a number of abstractions, like ‘virtue’, ‘honour’, and ‘humour’. For the Elizabethan ‘ambivalence toward the ancient virtue of constancy’, see Ruth M. Levitsky, ‘“The elements were so mix'd …”’, PMLA 88 (1973), 244. A recent discussion of the simultaneity of opposites is Jan H. Blits, ‘Caesar's ambiguous end’, in his The End of the Ancient Republic: Essays onJulius Caesar’, 1982, pp. 63-91. Constancy, especially in connection with Stoicism, is focussed on by, for example, John Anson, ‘Julius Caesar: the politics of the hardened heart’, S.St. 2 (1966), 11-33; and Marvin L. Vawter, ‘“Division 'tween our souls”: Shakespeare's Stoic Brutus’, S.St. 7 (1974), 173-95. The inaccurate and contradictory use of the term ‘Stoic’ in discussions of the play is summarised and criticised by Gilles D. Monsarrat, Light from the Porch: Stoicism and English Renaissance Literature, 1984, pp. 139-44.

  20. See, for example, Knight, The Imperial Theme, pp. 45-50, and Foakes, ‘An approach’, pp. 261-2.

  21. See, for example, Knight, The Imperial Theme, pp. 40-2.

  22. H. N. Hudson, Shakespeare: His Life, Art, and Characters, 2 vols., 1872, II, 234.

  23. See above.

  24. A favourite appellation, perhaps but not convincingly traceable to the braggart Hercules of the Senecan tradition; see Ayres, ‘Julius Caesar’, esp. pp. 202-12.

  25. Hudson, Shakespeare, II, 237.

  26. Dowden, Shakspere, p. 285.

  27. Stapfer, Classical Antiquity, p. 328.

  28. See, for example, Waldo F. McNeir, Shakespeare's ‘Julius Caesar’: A Tragedy without a Hero, 1970, p. 52.

  29. See, for example, Foakes, ‘An approach’, p. 270.

  30. Mark Hunter, ‘Politics and character in Shakespeare's “Julius Caesar”’, in EDH, Transactions of the Royal Society of Literature, n.s. 10 (1931), 114.

  31. Gustav Freytag, Die Technik des Dramas, 1894, p. 221. The German text reads: ‘Wer hat Recht? Jeder von ihnen.’

  32. Ernest Schanzer, The Problem Plays of Shakespeare, 1963, p. 6 (developed from his ‘The problem of Julius Caesar’, SQ 6 (1955), 297-308).

  33. Mildred E. Hartsock, ‘The complexity of Julius Caesar’, PMLA 81 (1966), 61.

  34. Ibid., p. 56. Hartsock summarises some of the leading views of Caesar as person and political force (pp. 56-7).

  35. A useful brief summary of opinions concerning Brutus, for example, is given by Spencer, ‘Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra’, p. 208. More recent and representative views may be found in Levitsky, ‘“The elements”’, p. 241: ‘We repeatedly see in Brutus the purity of motive, steadfastness of purpose, and strength of will characteristic of the Stoic, mixed with a tendency toward human passion and compassion which render him more vulnerable to suffering but also more lovable than the obdurate Caesar’; in J. L. Simmons, Shakespeare's Pagan World: The Roman Tragedies, 1974, p. 69: ‘The moral schizophrenia that Brutus manifests when he translates the ideal into action seems to be derived from Plutarch's inchoate paradox’; in E. A. J. Honigmann, Shakespeare: Seven Tragedies, 1976, p. 33: ‘Shakespeare turned Brutus into an intellectual hideously corrupted by high-mindedness’; and in Richard A. Levin, ‘Brutus: “Noblest Roman of them all”’, BSUF 23 (1982), 16: ‘Brutus merely has too much of the natural human desire to think well of oneself; refusing to see his own faults, he lets them run free … satisfying his conscience … by protesting his virtue too strongly and by finding socially approved forms for his destructive emotions; his public-mindedness conceals personal envy.’

Abbreviations and Conventions

Works Cited and General References

BSUF: Ball State University Forum

CahiersE: Cahiers Elisabéthains

DR: Dalhousie Review

EDH: Essays by Divers Hands

MLR: Modern Language Review

PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America

S.St.: Shakespeare Studies

S.Sur.: Shakespeare Survey

SJ: Shakespeare-Jahrbuch

SQ: Shakespeare Quarterly

Julian C. Rice (essay date spring 1973)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5732

SOURCE: Rice, Julian C. “Julius Caesar and the Judgment of the Senses.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 13, no. 2 (spring 1973): 238-55.

[In the following essay, Rice 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.]

When Brutus in his oration implores the crowd to awake their senses that they may the better judge (III.ii.17-18), some members of the Globe audience may have been struck by an implicit irony. Given the Pyrrhonic view of the absurd conclusions based on sensory evidence, which man mistakenly calls rational judgment, Brutus's asking men to judge by their senses might have struck an educated Elizabethan as only one more example of the blind folly which pervades Julius Caesar. A case for the centrality of the theme of human irrationality can be supported by purely internal evidence: attention to language, repetition, action, and structure. But the conjecture that Shakespeare could have consciously intended the play to be a commentary on human limitation may perhaps gain some probability by giving some attention to possible sources and to Renaissance philosophical backgrounds.

In spite of the fact that Shakespeare allows anachronistic clocks to strike in Rome, T. J. B. Spencer in a recent article feels that “Dryden and Pope were right; that Shakespeare knew what he was doing in writing Roman plays” and that since he produced “a mimesis of the veritable history of the most important people (humanly speaking) who ever lived,” it is important for critics to “explore the views of Roman history in Shakespeare's time.”1 But a “Roman play” may not depict manners, customs, or even history alone. Roman philosophical ideas play an integral part in a good many Elizabethan Roman plays,2 and Julius Caesar is no exception. Three major Roman philosophies seem to be present: Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Pyrrhonism. If the play makes any kind of resolution of the various philosophical questions it raises, it would have to be in the direction of Pyrrhonic doubt of the capability of human judgment. Both Stoicism and Epicureanism prove to be inadequate both as definitions of human capability and as guides to human conduct.

While Brutus's Stoicism has been mentioned by many critics, Cassius's Epicureanism has received comparatively little attention. Cassius's only direct allusion to his belief in Julius Caesar occurs in V.i. when having “held Epicurus strong,” he begins to change his opinions about portents. Plutarch mentions Cassius's Epicureanism briefly three times,3 but there is nothing in Plutarch to foreshadow the speeches of Cassius in I.ii. and I.iii. which resemble so closely the Renaissance stereotype of the Epicurean atheist.4 There is a very definite parallel, however, in Act IV, scene 1 of Robert Garnier's Senecan Roman play, Cornelie, which appeared in 1594 as Cornelia in an English translation by Thomas Kyd. In the seduction scene with Brutus in Cornelia Cassius uses Epicurean atheism as a rationale for unlawful action. He tells Brutus in effect that it is foolish to wait patiently for the gods to redress Rome's wrongs, since the gods are either non-existent or indifferent to human problems.

O Rome, accursed Rome, thou murdrest vs,
And massacrest thy selfe in yielding thus.
Yet are there Gods, yet is there heauen and earth,
That seeme to feare a certaine Thunderer.
No, no, there are no Gods; or, if there be,
They leaue to see into the worlds affaires:
They care not for vs, nor account of men,
For what we see is done, is done by chaunce.
T'is Fortune rules for equitie and right
Have neither helpe nor grace in heauens sight.


The Epicureanism of Shakespeare's Cassius is not indicated quite as directly. In I.ii. Cassius emphasizes that Caesar's greatness exists only in his name and that the name itself is meaningless except as it is interpreted, often falsely, by others,

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.”


Having nominalistically been playing upon the meaninglessness of names, Cassius then implicitly states his Epicurean view that the gods are only names:

Now, in the names of all the gods at once
Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed,
That he is grown so great?


The notion that the Epicureans believed the gods to be only meaningless abstractions is evident in the fears of Zeus in Lucian's Zeus Rants. Commenting on a forthcoming debate on the existence of the gods between Damis and Epicure and Timocles the Stoic, Zeus says, “either they decide we're just names and set us aside, or Timocles wins the argument and we retain our honor.”7 In Marlowe's translation of Ovid's Amores, Elegy iii, Book III, a deceived lover expresses his exaggerated feeling of injustice in Epicurean terms:

God is a name, no substance, fear'd in vain
And doth the world in fond belief detain.
Or if there be a God, he loves fine wenches
And all things too much in their sole power drenches.


Since the Renaissance associated Epicurean doctrine with Lucretius, whose attack on supernaturalism focused particularly on rejection of Stoic divination through astrology, Cassius's contempt for Casca's fear of thunder and lightning in I.iii. might have further identified his particular Roman point of view for the educated Globe spectator. In dialogue with Cicero before Cassius enters, Casca interprets the storm as “Either … a civil strife in heaven, / Or else the world, too saucy with the gods. / Incenses them to send destruction” (I.iii.11-13). Casca goes on to express his own disagreement with those who would supply a naturalistic explanation for such events.

                              When these prodigies
Do so conjointly meet, let not men say,
“These are their reasons, they are natural,”
For I believe they are portentous things
Unto the climate that they point upon.


When Cassius enters, Casca immediately wants his interpretation of the omens. Cassius's answer reveals his contempt for the thunder, traditionally representative of God's power, and his words would have had the same sacrilegious implications for both pious Renaissance Christians and devout pagan believers,9

For my part, I have walked about the streets,
Submitting me unto the perilous night,
And thus unbraced, Casca, as you see,
Have bared my bosom to the thunder-stone;
And when the cross blue lightning seemed to open
The breast of heaven, I did present myself
Even in the aim and very flash of it.


The Epicurean quality of Cassius's attitude might have been apparent to anyone familiar with a statement like the following from Book II of De Rerum Natura, in which Lucretius makes the connection between the indiscriminating results of thunder and the apparent fallacy of attributing it to divinity: “Nature is free and uncontrolled by proud masters and runs the universe by herself without the aid of gods … Who can … launch bolts that may often wreck his own temples, or retire and spend his fury letting fly at deserts with that missile which often passes by the guilty and slays the innocent and blameless?”10 Casca considers such words to be foolhardy blasphemy and expresses a more conventional view (in Renaissance England as well as Rome) of how men should react to the signs of heaven.

It is the part of men to fear and tremble
When the most mighty gods by tokens send
Such dreadful heralds to astonish us.


Cassius only says “You are dull, Casca” and proceeds to manipulate Casca's superstitions for his own purposes by interpreting the portents in such a way as to bring Casca into the conspiracy. Cassius's subsequent invocation of the gods is ironic in that it implies that the gods help those who help themselves.

Cassius from bondage will deliver Cassius.
Therein, ye gods, you make the weak most strong
Therein, ye gods, you tyrants do defeat.


But a belief in the complete autonomy and effectiveness of the individual will, perhaps similar to that of Machiavelli, whom the English Renaissance also considered atheistic, fails to provide Cassius with viable answers to life as he experiences it in the play. When circumstances become insurmountable and Cassius can no longer act as he wills to act, he finds a significantly “partial” rationale in the portents he had earlier rejected,

                                                  against my will
(As Pompey was) am I compelled to set
Upon one battle all our liberties.
You know that I held Epicurus strong,
And his opinion; now I change my mind,
And partly credit things that do presage.


His words, however, are significantly qualified by “partly” which is repeated again in response to Messala's attempt to cheer him up, “I but believe it partly.” But his new partial belief is expressed in his next lines to Brutus,

                    Now, most noble Brutus,
The gods today stand friendly, that we may,
Lovers in peace, lead on our days to age!


If the play finds more things on earth than Cassius's philosophy dreamt of, it also points up the impossibility of Brutus's Stoicism as a realistically applicable guide or solace. The anti-Stoicism of Julius Caesar begins with Marullus accusing the Plebeians of a lack of feeling in the vocabulary of anti-Stoic rhetoric.

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


Marullus's accusation is later paralleled by Antony's appeal to the crowd, in which he too uses the vocabulary of anti-Stoicism,

You are not wood, you are not stones, but men;
And being men, hearing the will of Caesar,
It will inflame you, it will make you mad.


Such references, however, only supply a textural background to Shakespeare's subtle but merciless treatment of Stoicism as it fails to work for Brutus. Just as Epicureanism failed to give Cassius answers under adverse circimstances, so Stoicism fails where its adherents most expected it to help. The crucial scene of Stoicism's failure, IV.iii, is foreshadowed by subtle inconsistencies between Brutus's philosophy and his nature earlier in the play. In I.ii. Brutus shows contempt for Anthony's “quick spirit” but admits to Cassius that unlike the ideal Stoic sage, he has been “Vexed … / Of late with passions of some difference” (I.ii.39-40). Later in the same scene the Stoic Brutus appears incapable of controlling his feelings and ironically invokes “love,” a feeling, in begging Cassius to stop provoking him,

                              For this present,
I would not so (with love I might entreat you)
Be any further moved.


The primary practical advantage of Stoicism has always conventionally been thought of as an ability to bear pain unflinchingly. Attempting to make Brutus reveal his plans to her in II.i., Portia wins Brutus's confidence by displaying a self-inflicted injury,

          I have made strong proof of my constancy,
Giving my self a voluntary wound
Here in the thigh; can I bear that with patience
And not my husband's secrets?
          Render me worthy of this noble wife.


But later neither Portia nor Brutus is able to bear pain stoically. Portia dies out of “impatience” at Brutus's absence and grief “that young Octavius with Mark Antony / Have made themselves so strong” (IV.iii.152-153), Brutus's reaction to her death and to his other misfortunes reveals that he is able to “make no use” of his “philosophy.” In IV.iii Brutus and Cassius exchange passionate and angry recriminations, after which they are apparently reconciled to a more rational harmony. Brutus says that he was “ill tempered,” in apologizing to Cassius, implying that his normal state is one of rational temperance. But Brutus's return to temperance is only momentary, and intemperance, or “sickness,” appears to be his natural rather than his abnormal state. A Cynic poet enters and wisely tells the two generals to stop arguing and to “Love and be friends, as two such men should be.” This again sets off Brutus's temper, and although Cassius calmy advises, “Bear with him, Brutus, 'tis his fashion,” Brutus angrily orders the “jigging fool” away.

The Stoic Brutus then orders Lucius to bring him a “bowl of wine,” traditionally the symbol of the Epicurean and not a drink for Stoics.12 Cassius is surprised that Brutus could have given in so easily to his passions in the previous exchange between them, and he gently reminds Brutus of his philosophy which he does not seem to be employing under stress,

I did not think you could have been so angry. …
Of your philosophy you make no use,
If you give place to accidental evils.


Brutus defends himself by saying that “No man bears sorrow better,” and to prove it he informs Cassius of Portia's death. Cassius is moved by the account of Portia's suicide brought on by grief, and ironically Brutus illustrates the inadequacy of his stoic forbearance by showing that he cannot bear to hear Cassius speak of her. He then unstoically drowns his sorrows in the wine. “Speak no more of her. Give me a bowl of wine. In this I bury all unkindness, Cassius” (IV.iii.158-159). And again a few lines later,

Portia art thou gone?
No more I pray you.


Messala, unaware that Brutus already knows of his wife's death arrives to inform him of the tragedy. Ironically Brutus, acting as he has throughout the play with an apparent need to keep up appearances, pretends he is hearing the news for the first time and acts the part of the stoic Roman, but the audience has just seen how he has really reacted and consoled himself.13

Then like a Roman bear the truth I tell,
For certain she is dead, and by strange manner.
Why, farewell, Portia. We must die, Messala.
With meditating that she must die once,
I have the patience to endure it now.
Even so great men great losses should endure.
I have as much of this in art as you,
But yet my nature could not bear it so.


Cassius's comment implies that Brutus's answer to Messala has been only artificial and that Stoicism contradicts nature, which is essentially feeling and irrational.14

Brutus does, however, “use his philosophy” in the end, albeit rather inconsistently. The same philosophy by which Brutus condemned Cato for suicide later allows Brutus himself to commit suicide. The point made, however, is that Brutus cannot bear suffering by a reliance on either Stoic fortitude or Stoic providence, both of which seem to be non-existent in the play, and although he kills himself in the Stoic fashion, he does so as a last resort out of despair. He is driven “to the pit,” and the fact that there is no other way out than the living death of being led in triumph forces Brutus's suicide.

Even by the rule of that philosophy
By which I did blame Cato for the death
Which he did give himself; I know not how,
But I do find it cowardly and vile,
For fear of what might fall, so to prevent
The time of life, arming myself with patience
To stay the providence of some high powers
That govern us below.


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


Mercifully, however, Brutus dies with the illusion that “he only overcame himself.”

Brutus's final illusion, however, may be only one reflection of the play's general Pyrrhonism, which finds man's knowledge and beliefs to be determined more by fear and hope than by reason. There is one passage in Plutarch's Life of Marcus Brutus which seems to be especially relevant to the human action as it is mirrored in Julius Caesar. Although Cassius, who is trying to account for Brutus's tortured visions with a naturalistic explanation, is once again explicitly identified by Plutarch as “being in opinion an Epicurean,” his answer may have reminded a Renaissance reader more of Montaigne, Sanchez, or Samuel Daniel than of the Lucretian attack on the supernatural:

“In our sect, Brutus, we have an opinion that we do not always feel or see that which we suppose we do both see and feel; but that our senses being credulous, and therefore easily abused, when they are idle and unoccupied in their own objects, are induced to imagine they see and conjecture that which they in truth do not. For our mind is quick and cunning to work, without either cause or matter, anything in the imagination whatsoever. And therefore the imagination is resembled to clay, and the mind to the potter, who, without any other cause than his fancy and pleasure, changeth it into what fashion and form he will. And this doth the diversity of our dreams show unto us. For our imagination doth upon a small fancy grow from conceit to conceit, altering both in passions and forms of things imagined. For the mind of man is ever occupied; and that continual moving is nothing but an imagination.”15

The emphasis in Cassius's speech on the weakness of the senses bears a strong resemblance to the writings of Renaissance Pyrrhonists. Montaigne's famous comments on the senses are well known,

This discourse hath drawne me to the consideration of the senses wherein consisteth the greatest foundation and triall of our ignorance … all knowledge is addressed unto us by the senses, they are our masters.

Touching the error and uncertaintie of the senses operation, a man may store himselfe with as many examples as he pleaseth, so ordinary are the faults and deceits they use towards us.

Our senses are not onely altered, but many times dulled by the passions of the mind.16

It is possible that Shakespeare may have been familiar with Montaigne before the publication of Florio's translation, but there were other sources of Pyrrhonic thought in the sixteenth century. A Latin translation of the Hypotyposes of Sextus Empiricus was published in 1562, and a non-extant English translation of the same work was referred to by Thomas Nashe in his preface to Sidney's Astrophel and Stella (1591).17

A Pyrrhonist influence also seems to be evident in Samuel Daniel's A Defence of Ryme (1599), which was published in the same year that Julius Caesar was probably written. While there is some external evidence linking Daniel with Florio,18 the former's major work of criticism suggests that the influence of Montaigne's attack on the presumption of the reason was deep enough to make Daniel extremely diffident about advocating even a positive preference for literary forms: “But in these things, I say, I dare not take vpon mee to teach that they ought to be so, in respect my selfe holds them to be so, or that I thinke it right: for indeed there is no right in these things that are continually in a wandring motion, carried with the violence of vncertaine likings, being but onely the time that giues them their power.”19 Daniel implicitly defines reason in this context as only the rationalization of passion, “For if this right or truth should be no other thing than that wee make it, we shall shape it into a thousand figures, seeing this excellent painter, Man can so well lay the colours which himselfe grindes in his owne affections, as that hee will make them serue for any shadow and any counterfeit.”20 Human judgment for the Pyrrhonists was a relative thing, entirely subject to mutability. What appears to be right at one moment will seem to be absurdly wrong at the next, since both the object and the perceiver have no permanent identity. In Quod Nihil Sicitur (1576) a Spanish Pyrrhonist, Francisco Sanchez emphasizes, in D. C. Allen's paraphrase, that man “has no fixity of character: he is not the man at noon he was the moment before.”21 In An Apology of Raymond Sebonde Montaigne clearly formulates the idea, “In few, there is no constant existence, neither of our being, nor of the objects. And we, and our judgment, and all mortall things else do incessantly rowle, turne, and passe away. Thus can nothing be certainely established, nor of the one, nor of the other; both the judgeing and the judged being in continuall alteration and motion.”22 And Montaigne's thought is echoed by Daniel in the concluding paragraph of A Defence of Ryme in which he accurately predicts the outcome of the rime controversy, “But this is but a Character of that perpetuall reuolution which wee see to be in all things that neuer remaine the same: and we must heerein be content to submit our selues to the law of time, which in few yeeres will make al that for which we now contend Nothing.”23

Brutus's exhortation to the crowd to awake their senses to a clear judgment may have thematic irony, if Shakespeare took at all seriously the opinion of Plutarch's Cassius or the Renaissance Pyrrhonists about the “senses being credulous … and therefore easily abused … and induced to imagine they see and conjecture that which they in truth do not.” The judgment of the crowd's awakened senses becomes that of men who “have lost their reason.” The dialogue of the Plebeians, directly following Antony's first long speech, ironically mirrors the flight of judgment to brutish beasts. The First Plebeian, man without reason, immediately comments, “Methinks there is much reason in his sayings.” After the Second and Third Plebeians second this resonableness, the Fourth Plebeian volunteers a choice bit of logic based on the evidence of the senses. “Marked ye his words? He would not take the crown, Therefore 'tis certain he was not ambitious” (III.ii.117-118).

The scene immediately following the oration scene, III.iii., illustrates the brutish beast set loose, as the crowd, ironically acting no more irrationally than had the conspirators, brutally tears the wrong Cinna to pieces.

THIRD Plebeian.
Your name, sir, truly.
Truly, my name is Cinna.
FIRST Plebeian.
Tear him to pieces! He's a conspirator.
I am Cinna the poet! I am Cinna the poet!
FOURTH Plebeian.
Tear him for his bad verses! Tear him for his bad verses!
I am not Cinna the conspirator.
FOURTH Plebeian.
It is no matter, his name's Cinna;


The irrational murder of Cinna because his name is Cinna resembles the dual nature of the assassination of “Caesar,” the symbol of Roman monarchy, and the bloody murder of the foolish old man whom the play presents. The dichotomy between the Caesar-image and Caesar himself is immediately apparent in Caesar's first dialogue with Antony in I.ii. While Caesar fears Cassius, “Caesar” does not.

                              But I fear him not.
Yet if my name were liable to fear,
I do not know the man I should avoid
So soon as that spare Cassius. …
I rather tell thee what is to be feared
Than what I fear; for always I am Caesar.

(I.ii.198-201, 211-212)

The detail of his deafness in one ear only accentuates the real identity of Caesar, as do the repetitive references to his other physical infirmities. The man who fears nobody asks his friend to stand a little closer. “Come on my right hand, for this ear is deaf, / And tell me truly what thou thinks't of him” (I.ii.21-214).

The emphasis on Caesar's physical weakness foreshadows the irony of the conspirators' exhilarated cries of “liberty!” and “freedom!” after the assassination of “Caesar.” But the conspirators' misjudgment of Caesar as a threat to themselves is only one major variation on the theme of human judgment. The interpretation of reality throughout the play is no more sound than the interpretations of the dreams in II.ii. Caesar's image is again undercut by a subtle comic deflation. Caesar's Stoic acceptances of an end “purposed by the mighty gods” and of death as “a necessary end” are pronounced while he is nervously awaiting the opinions of the augurers concerning Calpurnia's dream. The sequence of lines reveals Caesar's character better then any explication,

It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
                              Enter a Servant
                                                            What say the augurers?


After pontificating on his fearlessness and his resolve to “go forth,” Caesar is able to rationalize his real desire when Calpurnia gives him an excuse,

Call it my fear
That keeps you in the house and not your own. …
Mark Antony shall say I am not well,
And for thy honor, I will stay at home.

(II.ii.50-51, 54-55)

Caesar's desire and decision to remain at home are based upon a dream, which for him, as for the other characters in a metaphorical sense, is reality. Decius enters and reinterprets the dream for Caesar, changing reality and influencing action while cynically relying on Caesar's gullibility. Cassius interprets Caesar as being dangerous for Brutus just as he later interprets the portents in the sky for Casca. Antony later interprets Caesar's actions for the crowd, who in turn interpret irrationally the identity of the hapless Cinna. Brutus is confident that he can “fashion” Caius Ligarius, and so on in numerous repetitions throughout the play. But there is no simple dichotomy of characters into categories of deceiver and deceived. The manipulators, having the same human frailities, are equally prone to illusion. While Decius is self-confidently contemptuous of Caesar's superstition, he, unlike the obvious fool, Casca, is under the illusion that the day breaks in the east,

Here lies the east; doth not the day break here?
O pardon, sir, it doth; and yon gray lines
That fret the clouds are messengers of day.
You shall confess that you are both deceived.
Here, as I point my sword, the sun arises,
Which is a great way growing on the south,
Weighing the youthful season of the year.
Some two months hence, up higher toward the north
He first presents his fire; and the high east
Stands as the Capitol, directly here.


The inability of Brutus and Caesar to break through their Stoicism to understand themselves is reflected in the inability of any of the major characters to interpret the reality of each other. Both Brutus and Caesar believe that Casca is shrewder than any of his actions or words in the play show him to be,

However he puts on this tardy form.
This rudeness is a sauce to his good wit,
Which gives men stomach to digest his words
With better appetite.
And so it is.


And Brutus, plotting with the conspirators in II.i. shows no insight whatever into Antony,

Alas, good Cassius, do not think of him.
If he love Caesar, all that he can do
Is to himself—take thought and die for Caesar.
And that were much he should, for he is given
To sports, to wildness, and much company.


This deception also involves the audience, who are not allowed even one hero with whom to empathize. After the moving expression of his grief for the murdered Caesar in III.ii., Antony next appears in IV.i. cold-bloodedly bartering lives with Octavius and Lepidus and then double-crossing the latter. The relationship among the triumvirate is paralleled by the petty wrangling of Brutus and Cassius in IV.ii. and IV.iii., and both scenes help to undercut a definition of Brutus as a tragic hero in any conventional sense of the term.

Act V, scene iii, however, comes closest to what might be called Shakespeare's tragic adaptation of Pyrrhonic philosophy. The scene opens with a description of a mistake, an error of judgment:

O Cassius, Brutus gave the word too early,
Who, having some advantage on Octavius,
Took it too eagerly; his soldiers fell to spoil,
Whilst we by Antony are all enclosed.


And an error of judgment based on the evidence of the senses is in this scene the direct and absurd cause of Cassius's death. Cassius sends Titinius to reconnoitre some distant troops. He tells Pindarus that his “sight was ever thick,” and that he should keep an eye on Titinius for him. But Pindarus's clear sight is still only a human sense, and he wrongly interprets the evidence with which this sense supplies him, telling Cassius that the horsemen who surround and apparently capture Titinius are enemy soldiers. Cassius, who ironically has seen nothing himself, commits suicide, because he is ashamed to have lived to “see my best friend ta'en before my face.” Thus Cassius, the master-deceiver in the opening of the play, being human, is also not so firm that he too may be seduced. Messala's comment is a lament for the human condition, the infirmity of which, rather than any particular tragic flaw or error, seems to be responsible for the bloody events of the play,

O hateful Error, Melancholy's child
Why dost thou show to the apt thoughts of men
The things that are not.


Titinius, like Cassius, then kills himself out of love and grief, love perhaps redeeming man more than an illusory reason, and his rhetorical address to the dead Cassius reflects upon the tragic limitation of human perception recurrent throughout the play, from the conspirators' mistaken fear of Caesar to the crowd's murder of the wrong “Cinna.”

Did I not meet thy friends, and did not they
Put on my brows this wreath of victory,
And bid me give it thee? Didst thou not hear their shouts?
Alas, thou hast miscontrued everything!


In its depiction of the human condition Julius Caesar reveals how “men may construe things after their fashion / Clean from the purpose of the things themselves” (I.iii.34-35), while as a depiction of Roman history, the play may be said to “Disrobe the images / … decked with ceremonies” (I.i.69-70) which other historical accounts presented. Julius Caesar would seem to be an interpretation of history rather than a “veritable history,” and an interpretation with a greater emphasis, perhaps, on Renaissance “new philosophy,” than on political morality. Certainly an anti-heroic reading of the play need not be viewed as unhistorically modern.


  1. T. J. B. Spencer, “Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Romans,” Shakespeare Survey, X (1957), 28.

  2. Explicit or implicit references to Stoicism are included in such Roman plays as The Countess of Pembroke's Antonie, Kyd's Cornelia, Samuel Brandon's The Tragi-comedy of the Virtuous Octavia, the anonymous The Tragedy of Caesar and Pompey or Caesar's Revenge, Jonson's Sejanus and Catiline, Chapman's The Tragedy of Caesar and Pompey, and Daniel's Cleopatra as well as in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus.

  3. Shakespeare's Plutarch, ed T. J. B. Spencer (London, 1964), pp. 92, 149, and 152.

  4. See the discussions of the Renaissance identification of Epicurean philosophy with atheism by G. T. Buckley, Atheism in the English Renaissance (Chicago, 1932), pp. 8-9; William R. Elton, King Lear and the Gods (San Marino, California, 1966), pp. 9-29 and 272-276; and E. A. Strathmann, Sir Walter Raleigh- A Study in Elizabethan Skepticism, (New York, 1951), pp. 63-95.

  5. The Works of Thomas Kyd, ed. Frederick S. Boas (Oxford, 1955), pp. 134-135.

  6. All Shakespeare citations are from The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. Hardin Craig (Chicago, 1961).

  7. Lucian: Selected Works, trans. Brian P. Reardon (New York, 1965), p. 166.

  8. Marlowe's Poems, ed L. C. Martin (New York, 1966), p. 227.

  9. See the discussion of “the convention general in Renaissance drama … of the thunder as the unequivocal voice of heaven” by William Elton, pp. 200-212.

  10. Lucretius, The Nature of the Universe, trans. Ronald Latham (Baltimore, 1965), p. 92.

  11. King Lear's indictment of “men of stones” is echoed, as Elton points out, in William Sclater's An Exposition … Upon the First Epistle of the Thessalonians (1619), p. 275. Elton also cites uses of “stone” to connote lack of feeling in Montaigne and Sidney's Arcadia. The commonplace also appears in the drama repeatedly. See The Countess of Pembroke's Antonie (V. 1896-1897), where Cleopatra laments, “yet me the heavens wrathe Into a Stone not yet transformed hath;” The Tragedy of Caesar and Pompey ( where the Epicurean Cassius condemns Caesar to Brutus, “Why so it is, for Caesar's heart's a stone / Els would bee mooved with my Countries mone;” Tancred and Gismond (II.ii.397) where Lucrece urges Gismond to second marriage saying she was not “carved from the stony rock;” and Romeo and Juliet (II.ii.66-67): “Romeo. With love's light wings did I o'erperch these walls; / For stony limits cannot hold love out.”

  12. At the end of The Atheist's Tragedy, the Epicurean D'Amville requests wine, while the Stoic Charlemont, needing no such crutch to strengthen his courage, asks for water. “Charlemont. Come, thou clear emblem of cool temperance, / Be thou my witness That I use no art / To force my courage, nor have need of helps / To raise my spirits, like those weaker men / Who mix their blood with wine, and out of that / Adulterate conjunction do beget / A bastard valour” (V.ii.210-216). Cyril Tourneur, The Atheist's Tragedy, ed. Irving Ribner (Cambridge, 1964).

  13. Brutus's sensitivity to appearances is indicated by the way in which he phrases his plans to the conspirators in II.i.162 and II.i.225-227.

  14. According to William Rosen, editor of the Signet edition, “some editors suggest that this [the dialogue with Messala] was the original version of Shakespeare's account of Portia's death and that he later deleted this and wrote in lines 142-157, preferring to demonstrate Brutus' humanity rather than his stoicism; the Folio printer then set up both versions by mistake.” Julius Caesar, ed. William Rosen (Signet Edition, New York, 1963), p. 113.

  15. Shakespeare's Plutarch, pp. 149-150.

  16. The Essays of Montaigne, trans. John Florio, intro. George Saintsbury (New York, 1967), vol. II, 312, 318, and 323.

  17. See Elton, p. 46 and Buckley, pp. 114-120.

  18. Daniel wrote commendatory verses for the first edition of Florio's Montaigne. See J. I. M. Stewart, “Montaigne's Essays and A Defence of Ryme,” Review of English Studies, IX (1933), 311-312.

  19. Samuel Daniel, A Defence of Rhyme in Elizabethan Critical Essays, ed. G. Gregory Smith (Oxford, 1904), vol. II, 383.

  20. Daniel, II, 383.

  21. Don Cameron Allen, Doubt's Boundless Sea (Baltimore, 1964), p. 79.

  22. Montaigne, p. 329.

  23. Daniel, II, p. 384.

Frank Johnson (review date 9 February 2002)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1123

SOURCE: Johnson, Frank. “Let's Drop the Fascist Caesar and Give the Middle Classes a Real Challenge.” Spectator 288, no. 9053 (9 February 2002): 28.

[In the following review of Edward Hall's 2002 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Julius Caesar, Johnson decries the cliché of presenting Caesar as a fascist dictator.]

The Royal Shakespeare Company's latest Julius Caesar, just arrived at the Barbican from Stratford, has Caesar as a fascistic dictator. Here we go again.

For decades that has been the only Caesar on offer from either of our national, subsidised companies. The incidence of fascist Caesars has increased the further we have travelled in time from the fascist era. When, as adolescents, we of my generation became acquainted with the plays from the Old Vic gallery, Caesar tended to be set in ancient Rome. The Caesar who, for some of us, was the role's last great interpreter—the late Brewster Mason—wore a toga, and played him as a benign ruler, at worst an enlightened despot.

We cannot tell whether that was what Shakespeare thought of him. But Shakespeare would have been much exposed to the Roman Catholic Church's opinion. There, Caesar was history's greatest source of good among secular rulers; precursor of the Roman empire which spread Latin civilisation and order. Much of the Church's imagery, including that of the papacy itself, was inspired by the Roman imperialism that Caesar was assumed to have tried to create before his assassination, and the opposition to which was the assassination's reason, or excuse. For this reason, Dante sends the assassins deep into Hell. Perhaps Shakespeare did not think of Caesar in that way. But it is one interpretation of him from the text.

The fascist Caesar narrows the audience's choice. It is also too safe; not at all ‘disturbing’ or ‘challenging’, two words much used by theatre directors. Shakespeare performances are attended mainly by the white, educated middle classes. With their ‘outreach’ programmes, the subsidised companies are expected by the Arts Council to make it otherwise. But white, educated and middle class is the reality. That class is not disturbed or challenged by the suggestion that fascism is bad. None of them thinks otherwise. The Old Vic put on a fascist-inspired Hamlet in the 1930s. There was just a possibility then that some in the audience might have been Mosleyites. Not now.

The fascist Caesar, then, is an old cliché. As Sam Goldwyn presumably said, we need some new clichés. With the tragedies this is easier said than done. The RSC and the Royal National are so original in the comedies and the romances, but they have trouble with the tragedies, especially Caesar. But this is precisely because of the politics which still sees fascism as the thing to guard against above all. Nearly all directors and arts administrators are leftish or liberal, unlike most people professionally engaged in politics such as Mr Blair and Mr Blunkett. They think that the way to challenge the middle classes is to praise Mr Mandela and denounce the late Enoch Powell, whereas only the opposite would challenge them. They do not realise that Mr Benn now draws large, appreciative middle-class audiences when he appears in the shires to reminisce about his long career.

The Conservative party is now unpopular among the middle classes not because it is thought insufficiently right-wing, but because it is thought too right-wing. This is the first time in our history that that has been the case.

If directors really wanted to challenge or disturb their audiences, how would Caesar be depicted? It would be difficult. He could be shown as a politically correct director-general or editor-in-chief who is about to suppress anything which suggests that multiculturalism is often violent and squalid. That is why the assassins decided to overthrow him. They are the champions of the put-upon traditional middle class. That would disturb a Barbican audience all right.

But it is best not to force the play into anything. Text and action admit of many interpretations. Are the assassins' motives especially pure? Is Caesar really a tyrant?

Once Brutus is safely dead, Antony says that he was the only conspirator whose motives were honourable. That seems to be true. But Shakespeare suggests that honourable motives are not enough for so drastic a deed as assassination. He has Brutus as confused and illogical. ‘It must be by his death,’ Brutus says. But in the next breath he admits, ‘I know no personal cause to spurn at him.’ A few lines later he admits more, ‘… to speak truth of Caesar, I have not known when his affections swayed more than his reason’. So Caesar has done nothing wrong or tyrannical yet.

Those remarks upset Coleridge who wrote of that speech:

This is singular—at least I do not at present see into Shakespeare's motive, the rationale—or in what point he meant Brutus' character to appear. … How too could Brutus say he finds no personal cause; i.e. none in Caesar's past conduct as a man? Had he not passed the Rubicon? Entered Rome as a conqueror? Placed his Gauls in the senate? Shakespeare, it may be said, has not brought these things forward. True! And this is just the ground for my perplexity. What character does Shakespeare mean his Brutus to be?

Perhaps Shakespeare offered no answer to that question, and left it to the audience. Coleridge was more shocked by the crossing of the Rubicon, the entering of Rome as conqueror, etc. than he thought Brutus was. But Coleridge, when he wrote those words, was probably still a doctrinaire liberal or radical. He thought that political belief explained political action. But Shakespeare may have thought that political action is better explained by the political actor's character. The cynical Cassius wins Brutus to the conspiracy by playing on Brutus' doctrinaire attitude to republicanism; an attitude that may have been the product of too abstract and impractical a character. Cassius convinces him and then Brutus convinces himself that Caesar will become a tyrannical king. Brutus kills Caesar for what he claims Caesar will become, not, by his own admission, for what he has been. He is entirely different from, say, Stauffenberg, the would-be assassin of Hitler.

Brutus' advice is always bad. His first decision, after the assassination, seals the assassins' fate: against Cassius' advice, he allows Antony to address the mob, and Antony turns it against the new regime. At the end of the play he recommends the wrong tactics for fighting the battle of Philippi.

John Palmer, a superb critic in the first half of the 20th century, wrote, ‘Brutus has precisely the qualities which in every age have rendered the conscientious liberal ineffective in public life.’ There is something for a director seeking to ‘challenge’ and ‘disturb’.

A. W. Bellringer (essay date spring 1970)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7925

SOURCE: Bellringer, A. W. “Julius Caesar: Room Enough.” Critical Quarterly 12, no. 1 (spring 1970): 31-48.

[In the following essay, Bellringer maintains that the subject of Julius Caesar is essentially Roman, with no significant Elizabethan or modern parallels.]


Julius Caesar is best regarded as an example of Polonius's category ‘tragical-historical’. The tragedy is inherent in the historical situation: it is Rome's in the same sense that in the history plays the tragedy is England's. But Roman politics are significantly different. Julius Caesar cannot simply be read as a cautionary tale for the times, warning dissatisfied subjects against the folly of killing the king. Any relations with Elizabethan politics are tangential rather than analogous. Ancient Rome is not just a monarchical nation-state, but the whole expanse of conquered Europe. She is also a small city with a peculiar political tradition. From this contradiction comes the tension of ‘the times’ which largely determines the fates of the individuals in the play. As Robert B. Heilman has argued, ‘the antecedent fact is the public situation—… the apparent development of a political dictatorship—and we see the private life in this context’.1 It is a mistake to look for a tragic hero here. There is no scope and no worked out role for greatness.

Shakespeare's interest in Roman history seems to have been twofold. He is concerned literally with analysing a transfer of power, with dramatising errors and their results, with demonstrating what was practical. But he is also taken up with firm sentiments, with admiration for sacrifice, with regret for passing ideals, and conversely with distaste for a sterile ethic. The result is an appropriate poetic style, dignified and clear, rarely persuasive, capable of giving away the speaker without satire, and yet suggesting a certain hollowness.

Obviously he took his lead from his source. Plutarch, though republican in his sympathies, concluded that in Caesar's time absolute rule was a necessity for Rome. The aristocratic cause was upheld merely by those who refused to recognise the inevitable. The republic, once dominant in Italy by virtue of its coherent inner structure and intelligent policies, had now as a result of territorial expansion become ineffectual. The noble virtues which had worked in the early days, frankness of dealing, openness in negotiation, respect for the consensus, were no longer relevant. They were the marks of patriotism and honour in a governing class imbued with the strong sense of legality which allows for compromise between contending interests under the pressure of limited national aims. Plutarch regretted their obsolescence. The need now was for control, but the glamour had departed; these are the points that Shakespeare's drama undoubtedly makes. His play is coolly distanced aesthetically. The experience it enacts is of a saddening, almost chilling kind. Rome is in an unfavoured, graceless state. There is some personal pathos, but no individual tragic focus. The play is an episode in a larger action, and is open-ended in the sense that it conveys the idea that it can all happen again, in a slightly altered form. The death of Caesar is central only chronologically. The theme is the emergence of another Caesar. There are even signs of yet another civil war.

Width of reference, spaciousness both geographical and historical, is indeed a poetic characteristic of Julius Caesar, not perhaps with the excess of Antony and Cleopatra. But the dispersal of forces is essential in the earlier play too. Antiquity is made to evoke its own antiquity once removed, but the effect is not the paradox of making the scene seem more contemporary. The sense of the past within the past is not simply a device, but is thematically crucial, since the play turns on the issue of the relevance of that remoter, small Rome to the Rome of Caesar. As usual the opening scene concisely indicates what is to be salient and gives us an advantage of hindsight before any of the main characters has appeared. Two disintegrating forces have destroyed republican stability and threaten to overturn the existing tradition entirely. Inside the city there is the populace, never likely to be organised into more than an instrument, but exhibiting a kind of ‘murderous innocence’ and dangerously inconsequential in its ideas and loyalties. Beyond the city the unimaginable extension of the frontiers has put power into the hands of generals, whose armies have warred against each other. Civil wars pre-date the conspiracy, which is itself as much Pompey's revenge as the battle of Philippi is Caesar's. Military power, answerable only to these ambitious generals, of whom Caesar is the greatest, but still only one in a series, is complemented by the manageable riotousness of the citizens, to the detriment of conventional institutions, particularly the senate. The opening exchanges of the play, humorously selfish as they are, soon turn to menace. The commoners, unlike Dekker's shoemakers, get no joy from their holiday for the occasion is unworthy of it. They are seen to vanish from the stage ‘tongue-tied in their guiltiness’ at the thought of the plague that must light upon their ingratitude to Pompey. They are at first upbraided by the tribune for appearing on a working day without the signs of their crafts; the tradesmen are lost in the mob. The puns glance at the theme of mending what is bad and recovering what is in danger. The disorderliness and irresponsibility of the people are, however, not emphasised till Marullus vehemently denounces them.

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

The speaker is Pompey's man and his partisanship crude. We rather feel it is the misfortune of the cruel men of Rome to have experienced both Pompey and Caesar in turn. Marullus's righteous distinction between a valid triumph, in which the tributaries ‘grace in captive bonds’ the chariot wheels of the victorious Pompey, and an invalid one, in which Caesar, the conqueror in a civil war, comes victorious over his rival's ‘blood’, that is, Pompey's heirs, is far from impressive. The tribunes' outspokenness has already the quality of a forlorn protest, and their courage in disrobing the images of Caesar's trophies looks futile. But at the end of the scene Flavius's words,

These growing feathers pluck'd from Caesar's wing
Will make him fly an ordinary pitch,
Who else would soar above the view of men
And keep us all in servile fearfulness,

though impracticably sanguine, express an ominously sane sense of Caesar's own delusions, as well as a fear of his unpredictability. The first grim moment in the play is when we hear from Casca in the next scene that ‘Marullus and Flavius for pulling scarfs off Caesar's images, are put to silence’. It is the unmistakeable sign of arbitrary power in a society where it is dangerous to think too much.

Reminders that Pompey is still to be revenged are unexpectedly prominent in Julius Caesar. Caius Ligarius's original offence with Caesar, we are told, was that of ‘speaking well of Pompey’. After the assassination Brutus does not refrain from pointing out that Caesar

          now on Pompey's basis lies along,
No worthier than the dust!

Antony in his speech to the people adds the lurid detail that Pompey's statue ‘all the while ran blood’ as Caesar fell, presumably out of sympathy, but also possibly accusingly. Even more striking is the reference in the last act when Cassius in his moment of partial belief in ill omens calls Messala to witness that against his will,

(As Pompey was) am I compell'd to set
Upon one battle all our liberties.

The interest in these passages does not lie in the question of whether Pompey could plausibly be seen as a champion of ‘liberties’ rather than just as a proto-Caesar. The significance is that the fighting into which the action of the drama visibly deteriorates at the end is not the unprecedented result of a unique crime, but is the reversion after an interlude to a state of affairs which was, and is, as is hinted by Octavius's differences with Antony, to continue, normal, until the man of destiny inaugurates his empire. The play ends suitably with a war-act in which the ‘bloody sign of battle is hung out’ and Octavius, or as he calls himself, ‘another Caesar’ asserts his superiority over Antony and fulfils his ambition of succeeding where his uncle failed.

I was not born to die on Brutus' sword.

The boasts and confusions of the battle-scenes are not, however, as in Troilus and Cressida, left to amount to ironic farce. In Julius Caesar the disorder represented on the stage by a succession of clumsy combats and nasty suicides confronts us with that condition of ‘hazard’ in the remote regions of the Roman world on which the militarists continuously depend. The ending establishes an oppressive continuous present, ‘this losing day’ of the defeated Brutus's bitter boast. The drastic instant solution attempted by the conspirators loses significance, for slaying has become ‘a deed in fashion’. As J. F. Danby points out, Antony's moral tribute to Brutus is in effect a testimony to the hollowness of the triumvirs' victory. ‘The problems implicit are only made more urgent by this false resolution’ (Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature, 1949, p. 145). Octavius has the last word, less generous than Antony's, but proper in a deadly way.

Within my tent his bones to-night shall lie,
Most like a soldier, order'd honourably.

His tent has become the place of honour. The unimaginative injunction at the close can hardly engage the audience's assent:

                                        let's away,
To part the glories of this happy day.

For can glories be parted so happily? One's mind turns to what has been lost, unity, civility, scrupulosity, and what was a commonwealth of sorts.


I mean by this the old Roman Republic, to whose values Shakespeare's verse affords a resonance thinner than, but still comparable with, his pastoral idealism elsewhere; in their desperate vulnerability these virtues are emphatically stressed. For whatever Horatio may have felt about

the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,

in the play which deals with that period we are given scant evidence of security. In fact it is a clear point that Caesar's presence, though arguably more commanding and more persuasive than it seems, is unworthy of his reputation. The details that are to Caesar's disadvantage do not amount to a denigration of the historical character, but they make the hero-worship of the mob seem very blind. His domination of public life is imposing enough, but a little doubt as to his reliability makes all the strength of the republicans' case. Negatively, their logic is sound. Caesar's first entry too is surely undignified. His requirement that the unfortunate Calpurnia should be touched by Antony's fertility symbol exposes the central weakness of the monarchical system, the uncertainty of suitable succession. His pompous style with its imperious presumptions is oddly deflated by the admission that he is deaf in one ear. Also he is inconsistent, for while respecting one superstition in the matter of his wife's barrenness, he rejects the soothsayer as ‘a dreamer’. In his domestic setting later Caesar makes a poorer showing than Brutus does. Though he evidently relates the disquieting features of the night to his personal circumstances (Act II, Scene ii), he concedes nothing to Calpurnia's case, based on a dream, but only, for a time, something to her ‘humour’. Caesar's usage of his wife looks like a kind of proleptic royal arbitrariness (in that house we are already in a world of palace influences), especially in the light of the fact, which the next scene presents excitedly, that Brutus has confided fully in Portia and had meant it when he said,

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

He could trust her. Caesar's unattractiveness is partly due to his inability to drop the public mask. This might not be a serious flaw in a ruler, but the public mask in itself is also not pretty. When Caesar makes Stoical contentions like this,

Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,

he reveals the kind of self-deception that can issue in cruelty.2 There is of course the argument that, in spite of his failings of tone, Caesar's pre-eminence can be taken dramatically for granted just as God's can in a miracle play. As for instance T. S. Dorsch suggests, Caesar's ‘greatness and nobility do not need to be emphasized; they are implicit in the attitude towards him of every one else in the play’. So we can soon realise ‘that the stabbing is mere senseless butchery’ and admire Shakespeare for providing ‘some intelligible motives for this incredible piece of criminal folly’ (Arden edition, 1955, intro., pp. xxix, xxxv and xxxix). This interpretation demands a great deal in the way of silent meaningful expressions from the actor who plays Caesar, but I doubt if he could have counted on unequivocal admiration for Julius Caesar in audiences of the 1590's any more than in audiences to-day.3 Ben Jonson of course complained that Shakespeare had put sayings into Caesar's mouth ‘which were ridiculous’, but whether his example,

Caesar did never wrong, but with just cause,

or the Folio version, possibly altered to meet his criticism,

Know, Caesar doth not wrong, nor without cause
Will he be satisfied,

is the original, neither lacks the sinister assumption of infallibility.4 There is also the revealing phrase that Caesar drops casually, ‘Caesar and his senate’. Caesar's last, unsuspecting speeches are almost thrasonical in style. The insistence on constancy in decisions suggests an authoritarian rigidity, which is virtually tautological.

          I was constant Cimber should be banish'd,
And constant do remain to keep him so.
… Hence! Wilt thou lift up Olympus?

That Caesar should stress his immobility the moment before he is struck down scarcely makes for implicit grandeur. The irony confirms one's unfavourable response when he interrupts Metellus, before any reasonable case can be made for repealing his brother's banishment, with a scornful speech. Here Caesar distinguishes himself from ordinary men, or fools, whose blood can be thawed or fired so as to

          turn pre-ordinance and first decree
Into the law of children.

He professes that he rejects the suit in order to demonstrate that he is the one man in the world he knows

That unassailable holds on his rank,
Unshak'd of motion.

One's impression of a long-sighted hauteur, of an inflexibility that over-simplifies to justify prejudice, is not lessened by the knowledge that this was precisely the reaction that the conspirators had calculated on getting and had needed from Caesar. And ‘so, by excluding the passions, repressing the sensitive soul, and disjoining the operational nexus of hand and heart’, argues John Anson, ‘Caesar, in his will to remain untouchable, threatens to occupy the whole space of the living world: … now a god, now a block, Caesar emerges precisely a colossus, and, as such, the incarnation of Stoic man.’5 But the terrible event which ensues shows us his human vulnerability again; Caesar had neither the pure ruthlessness of a tyrant, nor the political sagacity to survive in a transitional period. Nevertheless there is a sense in which Caesar transcends his opponents. It is not really that he is more trustworthy, but that he thinks more broadly. If not by any means sublimely puissant, he still takes a truly high, lonely view; he thinks in terms of the northern star, the gods; his mind moves easily to the outskirts of the Roman domain where the exiles languish. He knows the magnitude and the necessary solitude of the responsibility of governing Rome, his eyes, in Yeats's phrase ‘fixed upon nothing’. It is for this reason that his ghost can haunt Brutus, repeating the ominous place-name, Philippi, where the home-sick republicans are to go under.


The way Shakespeare succeeds in maintaining sympathy with the republicans while almost analytically showing their mistakes is the most remarkable feature of Julius Caesar. The interest is partly that of recording the internal strains and complexities of a faction as it works itself out to defeat. Mutual loyalty, though impaired, keeps humanly alive right throughout, in contrast with the contradictions in the narrowly based alliance of the triumvirs. Brutus and Cassius, men of mixed temperaments, interact dramatically. We are not to suspect that Cassius, though most unscrupulous in his shrewdness, is politically insincere. He does, it is true, reinforce his influence with calumnies, but he naturally loves freedom. Nor is Brutus, on the other hand, committed entirely to open dealing. He admits in his first speech that his private worries have veiled his look, and his decision to participate in the use of force involves him in hypocrisy. A main theme is the disguise and misinterpretation of motive that must go on in a situation menaced by violence. The cross-assessments and counter-estimates, the generalisations on men and their worth, are not mere constructions of ambiguous ‘characters’ on Shakespeare's part, but fall essentially into a dialectic of suspicion. The overtone is one of uneasiness, where nothing but drastic evidence will serve and mistakes quickly multiply. As Cicero is made to comment,

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

This ‘purpose of the things themselves’ is felt in Julius Caesar, not as a supernatural fate, but as a power at once human, because the result of human actions in the past, and terribly inexorable. For respect for the logic of events does not mean that judgements of value are mere idealism. As Norman Rabkin says, Brutus's faults of perception ‘undercut but do not vitiate the nobility of the character he demonstrates’,6 with the consequence that the coming Augustan peace is felt as peculiarly dubious. The play projects no welcome for it; the verse warms only to the values which it cannot foster.

In their discussion of principles provoked by the mob's adulation of Caesar off-stage, Brutus and Cassius define the serious Roman idea of honour. As distinct from the chivalrous honour ridiculed by Falstaff, ‘the name of honour’ here is associated by Brutus with what is ‘toward the general good’, as well as with courageous defiance of death. An honourable man puts first the interests of the whole state. Brutus's error is to conceive of ‘the general’ too narrowly, to concentrate on the patrician tradition of the past, on the capital city as the important arena, on a superficial experience of others as being all reasonable men of good will. It may be said that he assumes what is good for the public with a patronising disregard for what it wants, but he is not dogmatic. Honour is the subject of Cassius's story too, but his sarcasm soon establishes that Caesar's notion of honour is a purely competitive one; to

          get the start of the majestic world,
And bear the palm alone.

Cassius's attitude to Caesar is more than envy; he despises his philosophy as well as his physique. His dislike is only sharpened by the fact that Caesar's idea of political honour derives from personal sporting contests. Brutus picks up the bitterness when the second ‘general shout’ suggests to him applauses

For some new honours that are heap'd on Caesar.

It is left to Cassius to clinch the point in his most important speech. A heavy emphasis is given to the dishonour in death which is in prospect if the republicans acquiesce in the court of events. This indignity he represents as an extreme disaster where manhood is crushed by an oppression that is monstrous.

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

Cassius's bitter image of an autocracy where men (the vocative ‘man’ is not just expletive in this context) have no freedom of vision but to ‘peep about’ is effective, but his irony lacks a certain dimension. Caesar's power and opportunity depend on the fact that their world is no longer narrow, as Shakespeare surely means us to remember when later in the speech Cassius uses the literal epithet ‘wide’. Now more rhetorical, he evokes the grand extension of Rome in time and space and yet still remains unconscious of the crucial inference.

                                                                                                    Age, thou art sham'd!
Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods!
When went there by an age, since the great flood,
But it was fam'd with more than with one man?
When could they say, till now, that talk'd of Rome,
That her wide walks encompass'd but one man?
Now is it Rome indeed, and room enough,
When there is in it but one only man.

The word which betrays Cassius is ‘walks’; he still, as the slip tells, confounds the state with the city. This defect is cleverly built into the expression of sentiments that are too obviously admirable. By setting the Colossus against a universal scale Cassius succeeds in reducing him three times to his real size, a meaning reinforced by the pointilliste emphasis of the verse. There are only five words in the passage quoted that are not monosyllabic.7 The pun on Rome and room contains Cassius's contempt for the moral littleness of a society which could accept tyranny, but the ambiguities of ‘room enough’ are very dramatic. In the existing diffused state of the Roman dominions, could the political entity be preserved by more than one controller? Plutarch thought not. In this sense the tradition that, for Cassius, is Rome is no longer enough; it is sadly irrelevant to changed circumstances. Despite its noble antiquity the republicans' ‘Rome’ is empty of current significance, in hard political terms.8 Shakespeare soon lets us know that Brutus too has missed this momentous point, when he affirms that he, in the deceptive objectivity of the third person,

                    had rather be a villager
Than to repute himself a son of Rome
Under these hard conditions as this time
Is like to lay upon us.

There is something of the villager in Brutus, if his outlook is parochial and nostalgic. Military power based on provincial conquest and demagogic power able to work the urban mob have made the republicans' situation more hopeless than they can admit. Nevertheless they are not presented as pathetically obsolete or ludicrously effete. Cassius, if not far-sighted, remains shrewd, and Brutus's thought has power, exerting a transforming influence in decisive scenes. But both leaders are doomed, as the supernatural omens clearly denote. Even after Cassius's boast that his strength of spirit cannot be bound by tyrants' chains, because of his freedom to kill himself, the stage direction contradicts him. Thunder still. The menace of fact is persistent.


Act II of Julius Caesar is devoted mainly to the establishment of Brutus's charismatic quality. Shakespeare gives him a more positive personality than he could find in Plutarch (‘a marvellous lowly and gentle person’—the Plutarch references can be found easily in the Arden edition). Cassius had said that Brutus's favour, ‘like richest alchemy’, will change the apparent offensiveness of the conspiracy ‘to virtue and to worthiness’. Shakespeare softens the impact of the speeches in which Brutus justifies his consent to the act of assassination by framing them in dialogues with the boy, Lucius, whose innocent sleepfulness Brutus envies.

Enjoy the honey-heavy dew of slumber:
Thou hast no figures nor no fantasies
Which busy care draws in the brains of men;
Therefore thou sleep'st so sound.

His reluctance to disturb his servant is an aspect of the sensitivity which keeps him restless with scruples. His ‘cause of grief’ is his detestation of the means that must be used to redress ‘the time's abuse’. Of the necessity of Caesar's death he is convinced before he speaks. He does not believe that Caesar intends to be remorselessly tyrannical, but he knows that he is ambitious to be sole ruler, and that ‘might change his nature’, for absolute power lends itself to ineradicable abuse. If that fear is not sufficient motive, he taunts the conspirators,

So let high-sighted tyranny range on,
Till each man drop by lottery.

But the ‘dreadful thing’ of murder, which the ‘mortal instruments’ must carry out, and the furtive, hypocritical aspects of organizing it, he detests; he cannot give himself to the deed with a completely good will; his conscience worries him with nightmarish vividness. All this is creditable in Brutus (comparisons with Macbeth here are wide of the mark; Antony later admits that Brutus was not personally ambitious). Brutus's repugnance to secrecy and violence is admirably natural, but he is not, to the regret of some critics, a conscientious objector; he bravely commits himself to the assassination, though with genuine shudders. I cannot agree with L. C. Knights that Brutus is ‘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’.9 For fullness of humanity requires a favourable political context. Brutus already felt his humanity menaced by Caesar; inactivity at this critical stage did not save Cicero from being later put to death by the triumvirs, as is emphasised. Sophisticated passivity is no viable alternative, however much one deplores what they did. Brutus's struggle to overcome his squeamishness pointedly enhances our acceptance of the ‘even virtue’ of their enterprise. At the same time we realise that in a world of opportunists it will only amount to a gesture. Brutus totally lacks a credible policy, imprudently trusts his opponents and makes culpable misjudgments on the course of events. That these are more than mistakes of detail we already discern in the speech in which he rules out an oath for the adherents to the faction. They need no other formality than having given their word as Romans in private,

Than honesty to honesty engag'd,

for breach of promise convicts a noble Roman of being illegitimate. Brutus's idealism is not essentially at fault, but his focus is badly blurred. His influence is impracticably conservative. His appeals invariably take the form of reminders about patrician ethical tradition. The patriotism refers to the small city-state of the past where it is conceivable to assess the nobility of ‘every Roman’. The conspirators' horizon is the city-boundary, their prospect a retrospect. That distracting minute of chat in Act II, Scene i, between Decius, Cinna and Casca about the dawn, while Brutus and Cassius whisper, symbolically describes these limits; they do not know where in the urban landscape lies the east. Casca, pointing his sword, traces, like a well-informed but unimaginative weather-forecaster, the sun in March, ‘a great way growing on the south’ to its position in May, ‘up higher toward the north’; so, he argues,

                                                  the high east
Stands, as the Capitol, directly here.

Too soon their leaders will indeed experience ‘the high east’ on the provincial plains where they will face defeat, but Casca is confined to close-ups, his range foreshortened. By way of contrast, Caesar, Antony, Lepidus, and Octavius are all seasoned frontiersmen, ruthless tacticians conditioned by far-flung commands.

Cassius alone of the republicans seems to glance at the real threat, the strength of Caesar's supporters, when he urges that Antony, the ‘shrewd contriver’, should also be executed;

                                        and you know, his means,
If he improve them, may well stretch so far
As to annoy us all; …

this unspecified allusion may be to Antony's links with Octavius as well as to his rhetorical skill, but Cassius does not press his case. Brutus overrides it with his alarm that the people would condemn them for more killing than was strictly required and with his assurance that Antony would be powerless without his leader. Shakespeare means us to understand how ineptly Brutus mistakes the real centre of power, even confusing the general will with the shouts of the city-populace, but his insistence that bloodshed should be kept to a minimum is given, and carries, of course great weight. Paradoxically the blundering statement, ‘Antony is but a limb of Caesar’, suggests to Brutus his vital distinction between sacrificers and butchers, carvers and hewers, purgers and murderers. This speech,10 though it has something of the sinister ring of the propagandist's set of euphemisms to modern ears, should not be read as moral self-deception on Brutus's part, as though he could believe that to regard assassination as a ceremony would lessen the amount of blood spilt. The killing is not to be ritualised so much as disciplined in order to underline to the people the republicans' control of their vicious passions, especially their wrath, by their ‘hearts’, that is, by a reasoned ethic based on common feeling. The speech reaches its climax in what is a profound, if bitterly ironic, truth.

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.

Against political force, whatever one's personal feelings towards those in power, there is no alternative resort but counter-force. This must be recognised, even though one must also insist on minimising the violence as much as possible. This is the point of the conspirators' ‘purpose necessary, and not envious’, but where Brutus's apologia falls down is in his failure to mention the guarantee of effectiveness. On any pragmatic test, their resistance to the spirit of Caesar shows up poorly. In a practical sense there is little chance that Caesar's spirit can be ‘come by’ after a single killing, as Antony's action confirms when, immediately after the assassination, he sends to Octavius. Brutus is only justifying what amounts to a tactic. His blindness is in not seeing that as such it could not serve. But this culpability of Brutus's is mitigated by the general foreboding which Shakespeare gives him with full seriousness of style throughout the scene, as when he undertakes to construe in his wife's presence

All the charactery of my sad brows.

There is no undramatic dwelling on the brooding, and the scene ends briskly with a piece of striking stage-transformation. Ligarius, an actually sick man, appears, wearing a kerchief, the sign of his sickness, only to discard it on hearing that Brutus has in hand the expected ‘exploit worthy the name of honour’. The feverish adherent speaks with an extravagance that is at once enthusiastic and ominous.

                                                  Soul of Rome!
Brave son, deriv'd from honourable loins!
Thou, like an exorcist, hast conjur'd up
My mortified spirit. Now bid me run,
And I will strive with things impossible,
Yea, get the better of them. What's to do?

This metamorphosis of Decreptitude into Resolution symbolises most economically the immense prestige of what Brutus stands for, the ancestral sanctions, the governing spirit working within the law, the civic pride. Yet the comparison with the magic of the necromancer is significantly unhappy. The accent is still that of hectic euphoria, hinting involuntarily that the question is not of what can cure a sickness, but of what is in reality dead.

After the murder the republicans assert joyfully that it is tyranny that is dead. Brutus calms their fitful fear of the mob with the ceremony, invented by Shakespeare for the occasion, of smearing their arms and swords with Caesar's blood. For Brutus the act is a sign of their common and open responsibility, but the visual indecency of its performance as a stage-spectacle convicts him here of inadequate sensitivity. Death looks ubiquitous in prospect, and there is nothing but dramatic irony in Brutus's revolutionary cry:

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 antique style of giving a direction and his unquestioning respect for the destination are so typical of Brutus. Subsequently in the market-place he addresses the people in a speech of quaint balances and patronising lucidity. He appears as a precise constitutionalist, sadly over-confident of his influence on events, his idealism spent in tired phrases. ‘Who is here so rude, that would not be a Roman? … The question of his death is enroll'd in the Capitol; …’. There could be no fitter comment on his incapacity than the total misunderstanding evident when the crowd takes up the cry, ‘Let him be Caesar’. The conspirators can in fact go no further, and the point of view in the play has already shifted to take in Mark Antony, who cleverly improvises to get the situation under control. Antony had previously demanded to learn the reasons why Caesar was considered dangerous, but as soon as Brutus, against Cassius's advice, had agreed to let him speak at the funeral Antony was content not to hear the reasons: ‘… pity to the general wrong of Rome’ was all that had been mentioned to him. His repudiation of the conspiracy first emerges in the episode where, left alone, he apostrophises Caesar's body with an apology for his seeming gentleness with

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

Antony turns Brutus's vocabulary cruelly against him in his absence. The sincerity of his loyalty to his dead leader is not in doubt, for he is determined not to do justice to the republicans. The military note predominates terribly as he foretells the merciless character of the widespread war which he is in fact willing to initiate.

Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;
… And Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch's voice
Cry havoc …

The curse is pronounced with a revenger's relish. It is also appropriate that the ghost of Caesar is to retain ‘a monarch's voice’. With Antony, as the moral response is at once lowered to barbarism, so the topographical range is correspondingly broadened (‘these confines’ are only the base from which the dogs of war are to be let slip). Octavius' servant enters to confirm that Caesar had already sent for his nephew;

He lies to-night within seven leagues of Rome.

The phrasing, though it is unwarranted by Plutarch, seems to suggest an army pausing on the march. Plutarch says that Octavius was studying at Apollonia, tarrying for Caesar, ‘because he was determined to make war with the Parthians’. It was Lepidus whose troops moved into the city of Rome the next night after the assassination. At any rate, Antony instructs the man to tell Octavius,

Here is a mourning Rome, a dangerous Rome,
No Rome of safety for Octavius yet.

The pun, an unconscious echo of Cassius's pun, again serves to keep in our imaginations the wider territorial room in which the militarists can group their forces. Shakespeare evidently wanted to hold over the entry of the soldiers till his scene had moved far from Rome. A similar, if this time incidental, effect can be noted from a passage in Antony's long demogogic speech to the people. He works on their imperialist sentiment as he displays Caesar's rent mantle.

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

Actually Antony had not been present at this victory over the Belgae, but powerful nostalgia for the field makes the conspirators' disloyalty seem treacherously ungrateful, and their perception of their own interests quite myopic. Once the mischief of the mob is set afoot by Antony's verbal incendiarism, which one sees as a classic example of oratorical manipulation, Shakespeare exaggerates the rapidity of events. Brutus and Cassius are reported to have fled before there is time to light the fires. Octavius and Lepidus are installed in Caesar's home, and Antony is willing to set up the triumvirate with them instantaneously, although Plutarch tells of a year's conflict between them. On the other hand the take-over of Rome by Lepidus's army is played down. The point is to dramatise that the furious mob gets no scope beyond what is implemental to the wishes of the friends of Caesar. The political aimlessness of the mob is enacted in the incident in which Cinna the poet is subjected to a disorderly catechism and then apparently torn to pieces for bearing the same name as one of the conspirators. The farce of mistaken identity is given a savage edge in this triumph of destructive unreason.

From this random victimisation we are turned to the cool but even more shocking scene (Act IV, Scene i) in which the three masters of the situation arrange in private the deaths of those who sympathise with their opponents. The grimly bargained proscriptions (Antony agrees to tick off his nephew's name—in Plutarch, an uncle's—in return for Lepidus's consent to the elimination of his own brother) convey immediately the energy and ruthlessness of the new government. Antony then sends Lepidus off to fetch Caesar's will so that they can misappropriate some of the funds which had been bequeathed, or so Antony had proclaimed, to the citizens (money-matters arise frequently from now on). As soon as Lepidus's back is turned, Antony falls to criticising him, not for ‘the primal eldest curse’ he has just earned, but for being unoriginal. He is an ass, a horse, a natural slave, and expendable.

                                                  Do not talk of him
But as a property.

The triumvirs' alliance is purely an expedient, an affair of commodity, and already the time is anticipated when thieves will fall out. Antony assumes in himself too easily the qualities of leadership which he slights Lepidus for lacking. Octavius points out that Antony took Lepidus's opinion on the proscriptions and also ‘he's a tried and valiant soldier’, still the most relevant consideration at that juncture. Octavius has the last word in this scene, indicating by a calculating distrust how little he is convinced by Antony's showing.

And some that smile have in their hearts, I fear,
Millions of mischiefs.

He gives expression here to an astuteness to match that of Cassius, which, together with his unusual self-command, constitutes his qualification for the leadership.


The real break in the structure of Julius Caesar, as most producers recognise,11 occurs here, before the quarrel-scene between Brutus and Cassius. The shift of scene from Rome decisively ends the excitement and introduces a note of clipped pathos. The characters are men in uniform. In the vague place of Sardis, far from public buildings, on the outer edge of their world, the bleakness of the republicans' prospects is suggested, not only by the unfamiliar place-name, but also by the stiff military phrases which formerly articulate men are reduced to using for greetings: ‘Stand ho! Speak the word along.’ In the argument with Cassius, Brutus still insists on a guarantee of unimpeachable conduct.

                                        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?

Caesar's support for robbers is adumbrated here for the first time in the play (it is found in Plutarch). Brutus does not necessarily mean that it was purposive support; much injustice is involved in a system tending to one-man rule, and Brutus possibly glances at Caesar's friends' conduct since his death to make the charge more plausible. But its straight dramatic point is to rebuke Cassius for venality. The emphasis falls on the gesture of grasping a contemptible handful of trash, with which Brutus contrasts ‘the mighty space of our large honours’. His pleonasm is that of the false sublime. Their cause is near to inanity in their present predicament. Their language retains potency only in reference to the past. It is only remembrance of their former comradeship that lets Brutus drop his protests, as is demonstrated when Cassius invites him to strike at his breast, as he had done at Caesar's. Their common theme now is longing for the old Rome. The poetry takes on a tone of stern valediction. The twice-told report of Portia's death, unless it indicates authorial revision, points up Brutus's laconic endurance of sorrow. The uncertainty as to whether it was seventy or one hundred senators that the triumvirs had put to death is a kind of gruesome pedantry darkened further by the certainty that Cicero was one of them. The fatal decision to march to meet the enemy at Philippi is made as if it were their last chance.

We, at the height, are ready to decline.

The melancholy mood comes into its own as Brutus bids everyone repeatedly, ‘Good night’, and Lucius plays his sleepy tune. Even Plutarch's ‘horrible vision of a man’, which showed plainly ‘that the Gods were offended with the murther of Caesar’, is toned down by Shakespeare into a dubious subjective apparition of Caesar himself shaped by the weakness of Brutus's eyes. Its message is fatalistically repeated by Brutus, but with calmness. If it is, as it says, Brutus's own ‘evil spirit’ (and it is heard by no one else), its relation to the Gods' opinions is left ambiguous. Brutus's subsequent behaviour is not that of a guilty man; it is not like Macbeth's after he has seen the ghost of Banquo. Caesar's ghost provides just another pointer to the unavoidable outcome; it signifies power rather than judgment. The definitive sense in which the spirit of Caesar is mighty yet is soon to be explained. The plot of the play turns, as Goethe says all Shakespeare's plots turn, upon the hidden point of conflict between ‘the peculiarity of our ego, the pretended freedom of our will’ and ‘the necessary course of the whole’ event.12 The republican leaders quite foresee their defeat as probable, but remain patiently unrepentant. Brutus assures Cassius,

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

One may object to this self-estimate as somewhat vain without recoiling from the speaker. The context is one of solemn farewell and Brutus is refusing the alternative of survival as a prisoner. The ceremonial scene presented as they iterate their ‘everlasting farewell’ assures us that their parting is ‘well made’. They have nothing to regret; their stand is not ultimately meaningless. In accordance with this attitude, Cassius in his last deed makes his servant Pindarus a freeman for assisting him in his suicide. Shakespeare gives to this bondman, whose soliloquy is entirely his own idea, a strangely exhilarating couplet, which breaks the slow monotony of sacrifice. He naïvely rebels against the whole Roman situation: he has known Rome enough.

Far from this country Pindarus shall run,
Where never Roman shall take note of him.

The audience cannot help responding to this healthy reaction. Pindarus's perfunctory dislike of Romans is perfectly natural, but we still feel that Cassius has deserved partly to be exempted. And Shakespeare has two magniloquent tributes in reserve for him; one from Titinius,

The sun of Rome is set. Our day is gone;
Clouds, dews, and dangers come; our deeds are done.

and then, from Brutus,

The last of all the Romans, fare thee well!
It is impossible that ever Rome
Should breed thy fellow.

The idea that the tragedy marks the demise of a historical tradition could not be more obviously stated. Both Brutus and Cassius die with a mention of Caesar's posthumous revenge, but Brutus's resignation and his final recollection of the doubtful will with which he had killed Caesar do not mean crudely that he got what he deserved. More neutrally, he got what was coming to him.

Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, though far from biassed in favour of Caesar's assassins, no doubt contributed to republican sentiment in 17th-Century England. But the play is not a tract for those who need an unmistakeable commitment. The tone of the verse, often praised for its augustness, restraint and classical spirituality, is in fact predominantly one of hopelessness. The nobility it celebrates had become too shrunken for grandeur. But the conspiracy against Caesar is not shown merely as the mistake of men who did not understand politics well enough to bring off a complex success; it emerges as a last stroke of defiance in a society which had become impervious to political subtlety. Julius Caesar mourns the supercession of a political tradition by armed force. The conditions for the old politics cannot be re-established by assassination. As in Hamlet, free consciousness is confronted by a primitive demand and destroys itself in a revenge-feud. But there is nothing modern about Julius Caesar. There is no wasted future to lament, only an irrelevant past and a vacant centre. The city of Rome was no longer the real landscape of government, but on the perimeter of her world the ignorant armies clashed, sounding the prelude to empire. There the political dramatist, like the free Pindarus, nimbly gets out.


  1. Robert B. Heilman. ‘To know Himself: An Aspect of Tragic Structure’, in A Review of English Literature, V (April, 1964; p. 41).

  2. John Anson has argued in his ‘Caesar's Stoic Pride’, in Shakespeare: Julius Caesar (Casebook, ed. P. Ure, 1969, p. 215), reprinted from Shakespeare Studies II (1966), that in his whole presentation of Caesar's illness Shakespeare ‘is attempting to represent the pathological constrictiveness of Stoic morality’.

  3. In The Massacre at Paris Marlowe, or the actors, had made the wicked Guise talk of himself as Caesar. Elizabethan ambivalence with regard to Caesar is examined in G. Bullough's Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, V (1964).

  4. V. n. to Act III, Scene 1, 11. 47-48, in the Arden edition, p. 65, for a review of this controversy.

  5. Loc. cit., p. 218.

  6. N. Rabkin, ‘Structure, Convention, and Meaning in Julius Caesar’, in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, LXIII, 244 (1964).

  7. Mark Van Doren, in his 1939 essay on Julius Caesar, reprinted in L. Dean's Twentieth Century Interpretations of Julius Caesar (1968), pp. 8-16, argues that ‘the music of monosyllables’ is no one speaker's monopoly in the play, the purpose at all times being ‘to pour into the ear an unimpeded stream of eloquence, a smooth current of artful sound’, p. 11. But Shakespeare uses it very discriminatingly in fact.

  8. R. A. Foakes, in ‘An Approach to Julius Caesar’, in Shakespeare Quarterly, V, 267-268 (1954), notes that the words ‘Rome’ and ‘Roman’ occur 72 times in the play and, after Act III until Antony's tribute to Brutus, ‘only in the mouths of the rebels’. One could compare the way the words ‘British Empire’ occurred only in the mouths of certain politicians between, say, 1945 and 1955.

  9. L. C. Knights, ‘Personality and Politics in Julius Caesar’, in Further Explorations (1965); reprinted in P. Ure's ‘Casebook’, p. 138.

  10. Act II, Scene i, 11. 162-183; Brents Stirling, in his ‘Ritual in Julius Caesar’ (1956), reprinted in P. Ure's ‘Casebook’, p. 164, argues that Brutus is being evasive; he needs ‘ceremony which will purify the violent act of all taint of butchery’, but one must remember that the metaphors refer to keeping down the numbers likely to be killed by them, if carried away by anger.

  11. Many critics, however, see the entrance of Antony's servant in Act III, Scene i as the turning point of the play; v. L. Kirschbaum, in his ‘Shakespeare's Stage Blood’, in PMLA, LXIV (1949), reprinted in P. Ure's ‘Casebook’, p. 157. But I believe the conspirators' discomfiture in Rome must follow the murder without a break.

  12. G. H. Lewes, The Life and Works of Goethe (1855) ii, Ch. 6. Goethe's ‘Oration on Shakespeare’ (1771) is translated there by George Eliot evidently.

Myron Taylor (essay date summer 1973)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3757

SOURCE: Taylor, Myron. “Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and the Irony of History.” Shakespeare Quarterly 24, no. 3 (summer 1973): 301-08.

[In the following essay, Taylor regards Julius Caesar as a drama concerned with clashing philosophical perspectives: the Epicurean philosophy of Cassius and the superstitious worldview of Caesar.]

Plutarch's account of the death of Julius Caesar at the hands of the republican conspirators Brutus and Cassius provided Shakespeare with a story ideally suited to his dramatic intents. In general politically neutral, the story as Plutarch recounted it contained many examples of supernatural phenomena commenting upon political events. In addition, Plutarch underscored the ironic implications in the actions of the plotters: in trying to end the tyranny of Caesar, they succeeded only in creating the worse tyranny of the Triumvirate. Ultimately the very swords that they had used against Caesar were conveyed into their own bosoms. In words drawn from Hamlet, the “enginer [was] hoist with his own petar.”1

Shakespeare made little attempt to “distance” his material. Rome emerged in his version looking very like contemporary London, even to the notorious clocks, and Caesar, Cassius, and Brutus became recognizable English types who would have been perfectly at home in the reigns of Richard II or Henry IV. Indeed the lesson taught by Julius Caesar was the same lesson contained in the English history plays: not that killing a tyrant was wrong, but that men are not the masters of their own fates. A greater power than man's controls the events of history. What man actually accomplishes by his deeds is rarely what he had hoped to achieve. To quote Hamlet again: “Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own” (III. ii. 223). The Player-King in The Murder of Gonzago thus emerges as one of the greatest spokesmen of the Shakespearean world view. What we intend, and what we actually accomplish, are often vastly different. Man may propose, but he does not dispose. Whether the plot involves the assassination of a would-be tyrant, or revenge against a usurping uncle who has murdered his brother the King, the path to the goal is rarely direct. Shakespeare made this point transparently clear in both Hamlet and Julius Caesar.

The opening scenes of Julius Caesar present two vividly contrasted philosophical points of view, that of Caesar and that of Cassius. The men reason in different fashions. Cassius is clearly identified with an atheistic and materialist world view. “You know that I held Epicurus strong / And his opinion” he tells Messala (V. i. 77-78). An Epicurean was a man who did not credit the supernatural, feeling that the universe and man were self-governing, and that man was therefore the agent of his own destiny. In Shakespeare's plays the Epicurean was almost certainly a villain. Julius Caesar himself, according to Cassius, had been an Epicurean in his youth, but he had declined from that rigorous position in later life. Cassius says of Caesar:

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

(II. i. 95-97)

There was evidence of Caesar's “Conversion” from atheism in Plutarch, but Shakespeare stressed the fact, giving the general question far more prominence in his dramatic treatment. The debate between naturalism and supernaturalism, Cassius and Caesar, is a major concern in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

Cassius, as Shakespeare presents him, is consistent in his philosophical naturalism. He explains the political situation of Rome in purely human and voluntaristic terms. He envies Julius Caesar the man, for he assumes that Caesar has achieved his dangerous political prominence by virtue of conscious intent and action, even deceit. He tells a more than slightly interested Brutus about Caesar:

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

(I. ii. 135-38)

Caesar, in the view of Cassius, is no more than a man. “I had as lief not be as live to be / In awe of such a thing as I myself” (I. ii. 95-96), he affirms. And he gets his wish. He relates to Brutus several stories pointing to the fact that Caesar has no supernatural claims to strength. Cassius once had to rescue a drowning Caesar from the Tiber; once in Spain Caesar had been afflicted by a fever, and Cassius had watched him shake (I. ii. 106-34). Yet this mere man Caesar “Is now become a god, and Cassius is / A wretched creature and must bend his body, / If Caesar carelessly but nod on him” (I. ii. 116-18). The accents of envy are very apparent in all that Cassius says:

                    Ye gods, it doth amaze me
A man of such a feeble temper should
So get the start of the majestic world
And bear the palm alone.

(I. ii. 128-31)

The structure of Cassius' logic is interesting. Caesar is only a man, and a rather frail man at that. And yet this same Caesar is master of the world. Cassius, being an Epicurean, must assume that this pre-eminence of Caesar has been achieved through Caesar's own efforts.

But quite another lesson could be read and learned from these materials. Caesar is only a frail man, and therefore could not possibly have achieved his present pre-eminence through his own actions. He is now all-powerful, and so therefore he has been aided. Obviously the hand of destiny is apparent in Caesar's successes. Fate intends that Caesar be emperor of Rome. This lesson is analogous to that taught in the English history play Richard II.

But Cassius explicitly rejects any explanation employing a supernatural hand manifesting itself in human destiny. His position is consistently naturalistic:

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

(I. ii. 140-47)

The approach is atheistic: he thinks neither name will conjure any spirits. Cassius' seductive appeal to the vanity of Brutus is obvious, and Brutus is not sufficiently immune to the flattery. Caesar is a man as Brutus is a man; why therefore should Caesar be ruler of the Roman Empire and Brutus his mere underling? Cassius assumes that man creates his own destiny; the fault, he affirms, is not in the stars. Therefore he plots to take the action into his own hands and destroy Caesarism by murdering Caesar. These arguments ultimately persuade Brutus, who joins the plot to destroy the would-be tyrant. The stoic philosophy of Brutus is not sufficient protection against the conclusions of Cassius and his naturalistic metaphysics and politics.2

If Cassius is the Epicurean in Julius Caesar, Caesar himself has moved in the opposite direction. Experience has forced him to abandon his earlier materialistic views. The bent of his mind is interesting. The contrast of the two points of view is vividly presented in the opening act of the play. Scarcely has Cassius completed his analysis of Caesar's rise to power, an analysis presented in terms of a voluntaristic politics and a materialistic psychology, than Shakespeare introduces his hero, Caesar, who presents a radically different type of thought. While Cassius operates empirically and rationally, Caesar's mind operates intuitively, and he employs common-sense notions out of folk psychology. Seeing Cassius in the crowd, Caesar tells Antony:

Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o'nights;
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

(I. ii. 192-95)

The credulous and good-natured Antony replies that Caesar need not fear Cassius, for he is “a noble Roman, and well given” (I. ii. 197). Antony is willing to trust Cassius for the simple reason that he is an aristocrat. But Caesar debates the matter in his own mind:

Would he were fatter! But I fear him not:
Yet if my name were liable to fear,
I do not know the man I should avoid
So soon as that spare Cassius. He reads much;
He is a great observer and he looks
Quite through the deeds of men; He loves no plays,
As thou dost, Antony; he hears no music;

(I. ii. 198-204)

Such an approach to psychological analysis brings a smile to modern lips. But we must remember that Caesar is right. As “Caesar” he does not permit himself to fear anything, but as the man Julius he has a hunch that Cassius means harm. The contrast between Antony, who hears “music” and attends plays, and Cassius, who “thinks” and “reads,” but hears no music and attends no plays, is neatly made. Antony's education ultimately proves superior.3

Employing his folk psychology, Caesar depicts Cassius as “envy” in terms so pure that they might easily have been drawn from an allegorical representation in a morality play. The psychology may be primitive, but the analysis is subtle and profound.

Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort
As if he mock'd himself and scorn'd his spirit
That could be moved to smile at anything.
Such men as he be never at heart's ease
Whiles they behold a greater than themselves,
And therefore are they very dangerous.

(I. ii. 205-10)

Interestingly, when Caesar follows his intuitions, he is always right. He ought to fear Cassius, as his “hunch” tells him. His approach serves him well. But he permits his will to intervene.

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

(I. ii. 211-13)

Certainly this is a brilliant touch. As a man, Julius Caesar fears Cassius, but as Caesar he permits himself to fear no one. And yet the admission that “this ear is deaf” neatly emphasizes the fragility of the imperial posture. Although an emperor, Caesar remains a fallible man and therefore mortal.

The contrasting points of view are clearly presented. Cassius, the Epicurean who discounts the supernatural and thinks that man creates his own destiny, is matched against Julius Caesar, who has rejected his earlier materialism and become superstitious. However Caesar refuses to allow himself to obey his inclinations and intuitions, and the refusal costs him his life. By virtue of his philosophical system, Cassius assumes that in killing Caesar he can destroy Caesarism, an argument that Brutus also ultimately accepts. If Caesar has created Caesarism, then Cassius is right. But the play obviously refutes the idea. The materialistic and voluntaristic assumptions are flatly rejected by the drama. While the play presents two different philosophies, that of Cassius and that of Caesar, the plot itself validates only one—the supernatural. Caesar is not his own master, and neither is Cassius. Both are agents of destiny. The death of Caesar does not end Caesarism.

The rejection of the philosophical assumptions of the conspirators is immediate and explicit. The mysterious warnings of the Soothsayer that Caesar should “beware the Ides of March” prove only too true. Rome is filled with supernatural portents that Caesar ought to consider.

A lioness hath whelped in the streets;
And graves have yawn'd and yielded up their dead;
Fierce fiery warriors fought upon the clouds,
In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,
Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;
The noise of battle hurtled in the air,
Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan,
And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.

(II. ii. 17-24)

Calpurnia dreamed that Caesar's statue ran pure blood. Calpurnia herself, like Caesar, had formerly been a skeptic: “Caesar, I never stood on ceremonies, / Yet now they fright me” (II. ii. 13-14). The augurs are instructed to make sacrifice and to examine the entrails; but they “could not find a heart within the beast” (II. ii. 42). And the entire sequence is played during a dreadful night of storm that adds yet another symbolic dimension to the ominous significance of the warnings.

Shakespeare, in a flagrant violation of decorum, brings the mighty Caesar into this scene dressed in his nightgown (II. ii.), surely a stark reminder that he is mortal and ought to beware of the dangers encompassing him. At first he agrees to remain at home and not go to the Capitol, using Calpurnia's warnings as excuse. But his will again intervenes, overcomes his intuition, and sends him to his death at the hands of the conspirators. He insists on the courage of Caesar rather than the fears of Julius.

The will to play the role of emperor dooms Caesar at every turn. Artemidorus begs him to read a clear warning of danger that “touches nearer.” But Caesar magnificently replies that what “touches us ourself shall be last served” (III. i. 5-8). When Cassius traitorously kneels to beg enfranchisement for Publius, Caesar responds:

I could be well moved, 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.

(III. i. 58-62)

Cassius, the skeptic who insists that Caesar is only a man, then draws his dagger to slay Julius Caesar, whose error lies precisely in believing that he is no longer a man. Playing the role of Caesar has cost Julius Caesar his life.

The hope of Brutus and Cassius that in killing the tyrant they have destroyed tyranny is refuted on every level. Announcing Caesar's death to the Roman mob, Brutus is met with the ironic cry of the crowd: “Let him be Caesar” (III. ii. 57). The populace has created Caesar, and not Caesar the mob. When Brutus refuses to play the role of Caesar, the Triumvirate moves in to fill the vacuum. Their reign is less merciful than that of Julius Caesar, and Mark Antony emerges as Caesar's rightful heir.4 The ironic refutation of Cassius is total.

But more than the political assumptions of the conspirators are refuted by the play. They have killed Caesar's body, but they have not destroyed his spirit. The ghost returns to emphasize the futility of the assassination. The ghost of Caesar appears to Brutus on the eve of the final battle. Brutus reveals his skepticism in his response.

How ill this taper burns! Ha! Who comes here?
I think it is the weakness of mine eyes
That shapes this monstrous apparition.
It comes upon me. Art thou anything?
Art thou some god, some angel, or some devil,
That makest my blood cold and my hair to stare?
Speak to me what thou art.

(IV. iii. 275-81)

The ghost twice warns Brutus that he will see him again at Philippi. But the warning draws from Brutus only the laconic response “Why, I will see thee at Philippi, then” (l. 287). The intention of this curious confrontation is reasonably clear. Brutus, like Cassius, is an agnostic if not an atheist; the ghost for him remains “the weakness of mine eyes.” But Brutus ought to take warning from the ghost, for Philippi is a disaster for his cause. Shakespeare's predilection for supernaturalism is explicit.5

Shakespeare manipulated the plot of Julius Caesar to refute as clearly as possible the assumptions upon which the conspirators have acted. Men are not the masters of destiny, nor is history without moral significance. A strong element of irony exists in Julius Caesar, giving added point to its philosophical message. In killing Julius Caesar, the conspirators create a greater and worse Caesarism. But the irony is made even more explicit. In the final battle at Philippi, Cassius is misled by error into thinking that what is actually a victory for his forces is a defeat. This leads to his suicide and the ultimate defeat of the republican cause. Using error to refute man's proud rationalism is a favorite device in Shakespeare's drama. The man who feels he can control his fate is refuted by his inability to control simple events. Upon being told by his servant Pindarus that his messenger Titinius “is enclosed round about / With horsemen” (V. iii. 28-29) [in actuality he is joyfully surrounded by the victorious troops of Brutus], Cassius assumes his cause is lost and prepares for his suicide. Ironically his death occurs on his very birthday. But additional elements of irony are present. The dying Cassius realizes the significance. As the servant Pindarus plunges the sword into his master, Cassius exclaims:

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

(V. iii. 45-46)

Most explicitly, the “engineer [is] hoist with his own petar.” Cassius has plotted and executed the death of Caesar. But the same sword is conveyed to his own bosom. That his death is needless and occasioned by common human error serves as additional refutation of his skeptical pride.

Brutus also dies recognizing the irony of the situation. “Caesar, now be still: / I kill'd not thee with half so good a will” (V. v. 50-51). The threat of Caesar's ghost has now been fulfilled. The epitaph on both Cassius and Brutus might well be the line of Titinius: “Alas, thou hast misconstrued everything!” (V. iii. 84).

Brutus and Cassius have acted upon the basis of their materialist and voluntarist philosophy, and the play has explicitly proven these assumptions to be wrong. The magnificent statement of his philosophy of history by Brutus is too often taken as Shakespeare's own idea. It must be remembered that this statement is refuted by the action of the play.

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

(IV. iii. 218-24)

Certain that he can judge the tides, Brutus commits his forces at Philippi, against the warnings of Cassius. The conspirators “take the current,” but lose their “ventures.” It is interesting that the imagery of the speech is materialistic, nicely underscoring the philosophical limitations of their position. Their philosophy does not do justice to the limitations placed upon human conduct and achievement by providential destiny.

Mark Antony is less simple-mindedly philosophical than Brutus and Cassius, and therefore more successful. His education in the theater has served him more successfully than Brutus' education among the Stoic philosophers. Sidney's Defense of Poesy had insisted that this would be the case. Antony's final magnificent tribute to the dead Brutus has baffled critics unnecessarily. Being less voluntaristic in his ideas, Antony is less likely to blame human conduct, and therefore more ready to forgive. At any rate, his final lines are great theater and great politics by a man who is master of the one because he understands the other. Poetry and power go hand in hand in Julius Caesar. Once victory is assured for his cause, Antony is ready to practice clemency as good politics. When Lucilius, a soldier from the conspirator's army, is captured, Antony orders his soldiers to “Keep this man safe; / Give him all kindness: I had rather have / Such men my friends than enemies” (V. iv. 27-29). It is precisely because Antony recognizes the limitations of human action that he can pay his moving tribute to Brutus as “the noblest Roman of them all.” Antony's view of human nature, while less rigidly philosophical than that of the conspirators, is deeper in its awareness of the significance of destiny in the determining of the events of history. Therefore Antony is better prepared to forgive human failings, Shakespeare's lesson in the irony of history is finished.


  1. III. iv. 206-207. All Shakespeare quotations are from The Complete Works, ed. Hardin Craig (Glenview, Illinois, 1961).

  2. The play presents a far more sinister insight into the motives of Cassius than is necessary to my purposes in this essay. In an early soliloquy Cassius affirms about Brutus:

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

    (I. ii. 312-19)

    The clear intent of the speech is morally despicable. His use of the term “seduction” is revealing, for Brutus has literally been seduced. Brutus has the “harmlessness of the dove” while Cassius has the Biblical “wisdom of the serpent.” The materialism of the position is obvious, and ties neatly into the general materialism of the Epicurean position. Cassius is no ideologue in politics. It goes without saying that the stand taken by Cassius is the moral opposite of the Golden Rule of doing to others as we would be done by. “If I were Brutus now and he were Cassius, / He should not humor me.” The line that connects Cassius to Iago could not be more explicit.

  3. Shakespeare, whose living depended on the theater, obviously sided with Antony's “education.” Brutus, in many respects quite puritanical, detests the plays and discounts Antony (with deadly results) as a mere “playboy.” But the knowledge of human nature that Antony has gained from the theater serves him well in the brilliant oratorical duel with Brutus over Caesar's body. Antony's theatrical oration (and theatrical in a good sense) quite literally changes the course of the play as it changed the course of history.

  4. Objections to Shakespeare's play upon the Aristotelian grounds that it lacks a “tragic hero” are quite beside the point. Shakespeare, a Christian, could not accept Aristotle's voluntaristic ethics and aesthetics. Kenneth Burke made the same point from within the drama (“Antony in Behalf of the Play,” The Philosophy of Literary Form [New York, 1957] 279-90). Upon Caesar's death, Caesarism still lives on in the person of Antony. Continuity is preserved.

  5. The same issue opens Hamlet, and the same problems lead to the same results. The two plays are obviously very closely related. For a persuasive treatment of the use of ghosts and the supernatural to buttress arguments for Christianity, the reader might consult the chapter “Glanvill, More, and a World of Spirits in an Age of Reason,” in Jackson I. Cope's Joseph Glanvill, Anglican Apologist (St. Louis, 1956). While Cope is dealing with a later figure, what he says applies to Shakespeare.

A. D. Nuttall (essay date 1983)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6285

SOURCE: Nuttall, A. D. “Brutus's Nature and Shakespeare's Art.” In Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 105-20. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1983, 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.]

The eighteenth century was profoundly excited by the then novel intuition that Shakespeare's works conveyed the nature of the real world. This excitement lasted well through the nineteenth century and still rises, unbidden, in the untheoretical reader, even today. But in the twentieth century formalism came to Shakespeare criticism before it appeared elsewhere. The origins of this formalism, indeed, lie outside the twentieth century and outside England. Gustav Rümelin's Shakespearestudien (Stuttgart, 1866) is an important early essay in this mode. The translation in 1922 of Levin Schücking's Die Charakterprobleme bei Shakespeare brought the new approach to the attention of the English-speaking world. The consequent critical enterprise, powerfully led in the 1930s by E. E. Stoll, forms a distinct movement, quite separate from structuralism, but sharing with structuralism a hostility to the idea of mimetic veracity and a correlative impulse to substitute codes and schemata for verisimilitude. The identification of schemata was a positive gain. But the presumption that they must be treated as terminal objects of aesthetic apprehension rather than as formulations of further meaning entailed a very considerable loss. Stoll and others conceived their schemata as necessarily intransitive. At an opposite pole, every ordinary speaker of English treats the schemata of the English language as transitive, as conducting the user to a reality which exists beyond the linguistic forms. Similarly, ordinary theatregoers treat the very different stereotypes of drama as transitive, in so far as they pass through them into a world of probable inference.

L. C. Knights [in Explorations], following in the footsteps of Stoll, would have us understand that Falstaff “is not a man, but a choric commentary.” In such statements the Opaque language of criticism rises up to condemn its former ally, the Transparent language. Knights's unguarded epigram expresses a hard formalist view and is as easily rebutted as such views always are. Falstaff is quite clearly presented, through fiction, as a human being. To strive to dislodge such fundamental and evident truths as this is a kind of critical idiocy. But the soft formalist position is a little more plausible. Falstaff Everyman and Jack the Giant Killer are all fictional people but they are not realistic. The emphasis in realistic art is on possible people, but in none of these cases is any strong interest shown in the area of possibility and probability, while, conversely, a great deal of interest is lavished on story, image, motif. They are therefore only minimally mimetic and such minimal mimesis does not invite or reward critical scrutiny. Once again the “weak thesis” is really the stronger one. Nevertheless, while they may be right about Jack and Everyman, they are wrong about Falstaff. The motifs and images are certainly there, but so is attentiveness to the world. The eighteenth-century critics were right. The poet of glorious, licentious imagination was also the poet of reverent and attentive perception. So long as we remember that fictions involve mediated truth to probabilities rather than immediate truth to specific facts, Shakespeare's plays may properly be seen as a continued feat of minute yet organized accuracy. So far in [A New Mimesis] the literary examples have been simple illustrations, appropriate—I hope—to some twist or turn of the argument. Shakespeare's imitation of the world, on the other hand, is a complex thing and we must take it slowly.

How Roman are the Roman plays of Shakespeare? Teachers of literature used confidently to assert that Shakespeare had no sense of anachronism. Clocks chime in Julius Caesar (2.1.192) and in Coriolanus the shortsighted wear spectacles (2.1.196). The notion that Shakespeare's Romans are really Elizabethans with specially sounding names persists. Students disparagingly observe that Shakespeare in Antony and Cleopatra betrays his complete ignorance of the most obvious and familiar of all Egyptian artefacts, the pyramids. In one sense they are quite right. The most ignorant student today probably has a better idea of the appearance of, say, a Roman senator or of the Roman forum than Shakespeare had. The reason for this is simple. Schoolchildren now grow up with lavishly illustrated history books, with classroom walls liberally decorated with posters showing the Colosseum and the like. Shakespeare had none of these things. But he read certain ancient authors. So it comes about that, while he will blunder in the physical detail of daily life—that is, over things like clocks and spectacles—when he comes to deal with a Roman suicide, as distinct from an English suicide, he leaves the average modern student light-years behind. In the study of history Shakespeare lacked the means to walk, but he saw a way to run and seized it. The more sophisticated conceptions of later historians are easily within his reach.

For example, it is commonly believed that it takes a modern anthropologist or cultural historian to see that human nature may itself evolve in time. Previously history was a tract of battles, legislation and migration, all presumably conducted by persons fundamentally like ourselves. This was the doctrine from which C. S. Lewis at last prised away his mind in 1942, in his celebrated rejection of “the Unchanging Human Heart.”

How are these gulfs between the ages to be dealt with by the student of poetry? A method often recommended may be called the method of the Unchanging Human Heart. According to this method the things which separate one age from another are superficial. Just as, if we stripped the armour off a medieval knight or the lace off a Caroline courtier, we should find beneath them an anatomy identical with our own, so, it is held, if we strip off from Virgil his Roman imperialism, from Sidney his code of honour, from Lucretius his Epicurean philosophy, and from all who have it their religion, we shall find the Unchanging Human Heart, and on this we are to concentrate. I held this theory myself for many years, but I have now abandoned it. I continue, of course, to admit that if you remove from people the things that make them different, what is left must be the same, and that the Human Heart will certainly appear as Unchanging if you ignore its changes.

Could Shakespeare conceivably have discerned a change in the Human Heart, dividing the Romans from the people of his own time? Surely, it will be said, we can look for no glimmer of such a conception of human nature before, say, the novels of Sir Walter Scott; indeed, even tentatively to attribute such a conception to Shakespeare is historical solecism.

Yet Pope, who lived a hundred years before Sir Walter, saw some such thing in Shakespeare:

In Coriolanus and Julius Caesar, not only the Spirit but Manners, of the Romans are exactly drawn; and still a nicer distinction is shown, between the manners of the Romans in the time of the former and of the latter.

It may be thought that Pope's emphasis on something as superficial as “manners” impairs my case. But by “manners” Pope intends far more than the formalized shibboleths of social intercourse. The Latin word for what he has in mind is mores. The modern English equivalent is likely to be polysyllabic and pseudotechnical: “sociocultural behaviour patterns.” In any case, Pope has already taken it as read that Shakespeare captured “the spirit” of the Romans. But it is the extra discrimination proposed in the second part of his sentence that is especially challenging. Shakespeare did not merely distinguish Romans from English, he distinguished early Romans from later Romans.

Let us look first at Brutus, Cassius and Mark Antony, not as Romans, but less narrowly, as men having a culture which is, at least, different from ours, so that they may be conceived as belonging to an earlier phase in psychic evolution.

Brutus at once involves us in a large, though fairly standard question of cultural history. For Brutus, as is conceded on all hands, is obviously presented by Shakespeare as a conscious Stoic. Real-life Roman Stoicism is rather an aggregate of intellectual and social postures than the philosophy of a single, dominant thinker. Its common opposite, Epicureanism, is indeed derived from the teachings of one man, Epicurus, but few people can even name the master of the Stoics, Zeno. For the Elizabethans Seneca and, to a lesser extent, Plutarch and Virgil are the authoritative names. J. B. Leishman offers an admirable summary of the cult (I use the word in its modern, debased sense) in his book, Translating Horace:

The central doctrine of Stoicism was that nothing mattered except virtue, that it was possible to detect in the world a divine purpose, guiding all things to their perfection, and that it was man's duty to try to identify himself with this purpose, and to train himself to feel indifference towards everything else, except towards any possibility, whether public or private, of helping others to become virtuous. About Stoicism there was much metaphor, much striking of attitudes, much of what the Germans call pathos: life was a battle, in which the Stoic's soul remained unconquerable and his head, though bloody, unbowed; life was a play in which each man had been given a part which he was to read and act at sight and to the best of his ability, without knowing what might happen in the last scene; the Stoic ate and drank from gold as if it were clay and from clay as if it were gold; amid the ruins of a falling world he would but involve himself the more impenetrably in his virtus, and his soul would finally ascend through the spheres to a region beyond the sway of fortune.

Leishman catches admirably a certain duality which runs through Stoicism. There is, as he points out, much pathos about this philosophy of apathia, “emotionless tranquillity.” The Stoics admired a condition of passionless indifference, but they also admired the heroic achievement of that condition. For the achievement to be spectacular or striking, some passion was after all required, if only as the material of moral conquest. Virgil's description, in book 4 of the Aeneid, of Aeneas shaken by Dido's plea that he stay with her, yet inwardly firm in his resolve, is one of the great images of Stoicism. Virgil likens his hero to a tree, tempest-torn yet firmly rooted, and ends his description with the famous, brief, enigmatic sentence:

lacrimae volvuntur inanes.
(the tears roll down in vain.)

(Aeneid 4.449)

The puzzle is: whose are the tears, Aeneas's or Dido's? Augustine, notoriously, thought the tears were Aeneas's (City of God 9.4). It is an interpretation entirely consonant with Stoicism: the suburbs of the personality rebel, but the virtuous will remains firm. Stoics are in one way like statues but it can be said with equal truth that the Stoic hero is typically wracked with strong emotions.

We must also notice that Stoicism is a “postphilosophical philosophy.” Ancient philosophy falls roughly into two periods. The first (the only one which really deserves the name “philosophical”) is the period of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle. It is characteristic of this period that thinkers should see themselves as lovers of wisdom, as seekers after or purveyors of truth, as people trying to find the right answers to the most difficult questions. In the second period a strange alteration comes over the philosophers: they now present themselves as purveyors of mental health. It is as if some immense failure of nerve, a kind of generalized neurosis, swept through the ancient world, so that the most serious thinkers found that their most urgent task was not to inform or enlighten but to heal. They begin indeed to sound like psychiatrists. This is the period of Stoicism and Epicureanism, in which the philosophers say, again and again, “Come to us and we will give you ἀταραξία,” that is, freedom from tumult, tranquillity. The great Epicurean poet Lucretius sought to free his hearers from the crushing fear of death by arguing—somewhat surprisingly to modern ears—that death is total annihilation. The Romans of the first century b.c. were terrified of torture after death.

The Stoic commendation of apathia, “absence of feeling,” is similar. Seneca wrote “consolatory epistles,” to comfort people in distress (notice how it has now become natural to expect solace from a philosopher—very soon books will appear with such titles as The Consolation of Philosophy, which would have seemed strange to Aristotle). Writing to people broken by bereavement and similar misfortunes, the Roman Stoic recommends a kind of withdrawal from the world:

Recipe te ad haec tranquilliora, tutiora, maiora.

(Recollect yourself, back to these things which are more tranquil, safer, more important.)

(Seneca, Ad Paulinum: de brevitate vitae 19.1)

Contempt of life (and, by implication, of all one's most demanding personal relationships) must be supplemented by a proper egoism; the mind is its own place, and, though a man be banished from his beloved country, yet he can always reflect that over his own mind he is undisputed king. Thus the rational man is a citizen of the world, true to himself, exempt from emotional commitment to particular people and places. He cannot be banished.

Ideoque nec exulare unquam potest animus.

(And so the mind can never suffer exile.)

(Seneca, Ad Helviam de consolatione 11.7)

Animus quidem ipse sacer et aeternus est cui non possit inici manus.

(The soul itself is sacred and eternal and on it no hand can be laid.)

(Seneca, Ad Helviam 11.7)

When, however, it is rational to leave this worthless life, the philosopher does so, with a steady hand.

It is clear that Senecan Stoicism worked by a systematic introversion of psychic patterns surviving from a much older, heroic culture, something like the shame-culture analysed by E. R. Dodds in The Greeks and the Irrational. In a shame-culture no distinction is drawn between performing an action for the sake of glory and performing it out of virtue. Virtue itself is seen in strangely public terms, coinciding with elements which we think of as “merely external,” like beauty and physical strength. The greatest literary monument of a shame-culture is the Iliad of Homer. But it is by no means confined to archaic Greece. Anthropologists have traced it in cultures as remote as that of eighteenth-century Japan. It is also vestigially present in our own culture. In Stoic philosophy the heroic ethic of pride, of glory in the sight of others, is cut off from its reliance on social esteem and made self-sufficient in each individual. The rational man is taught to fill the silence of his own skull with clamorous self-applause, with a majestically austere approbation of his own feats. Every man his own Achilles in his own, private Trojan War. Certain behavioural tricks of the old culture survive in Stoicism—the military strut, the strenuousness—but they have been strangely dehumanized. The vivid responsiveness of man to man has been deliberately dried up at its source and instead we seem to be watching a set of obscurely threatened statues. Truly for them, as Cicero said, vita mors est, “Life is a state of death.”

All this, note, is about real Stoicism. How much of it is “noticed” in Shakespeare's Roman plays? I answer: pretty well all of it. Shakespeare knows that because Stoicism is an artificially framed philosophy, deliberately and consciously adopted by its adherents, any actual Stoic Roman will have within him un-Stoic elements. Your shame-culture hero Achilles, say, simply exemplifies that culture, but Stoicism is rather something at which you aim. The theory of shame-culture is posterior to and descriptive of the practice. The theory of Stoicism is prior to and prescriptive of practice. There are therefore elements of cultural tension present in Brutus which are absent from Achilles (and, one might add, from Othello, but more of that anon).

In the second scene of the first act of Julius Caesar Brutus is “sounded” by Cassius, as to his willingness to kill Caesar. Cassius brings to his task a profound knowledge of Brutus's personality. He begins with the basis of that personality, which is the inherited and very ancient notion of self as essentially that which is presented to others. Cassius says,

Tell me, good Brutus, can you see your face?


Brutus answers that the eye cannot see itself except by reflection, in some other object such as a mirror. Cassius swiftly offers himself as a reflector:

                                                                                                    I, your glass,
Will modestly discover to yourself
That of yourself which you yet know not of.


Notice what is happening. Cassius is, in effect, teaching Brutus what to think. But he contrives to use an image which both apprises Brutus of the opinion of others (a powerful primitive incentive) and yet evokes the private, self-regarding virtue of the Stoics (since the heart of his challenge is, “Brutus, what do you think of yourself?”). All this is done with the image, carrying a simultaneous implication of self-absorption and external reference, of the glass. Such talk, we sense, is congenial to Brutus. Moreover the language of mirrors which Cassius uses to compass his end subtly apprises the audience that there may be something narcissistic in the Stoicism of Brutus. This note is struck again a little later when Brutus opens the letter in his orchard: “Brutus, thou sleep'st. Awake, and see thyself” (2.1.45).

But with all this Brutus is perhaps better than Cassius thinks him. In the orchard scene (2.1) we see his mind, not as it is when it is being manipulated by Cassius, but working alone, strenuously, struggling to determine what ought to be done:

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


Brutus sets out the case with scrupulous care. He knows nothing personally, here and now, against Caesar. The alpha and omega of the case against him is that he would like to be crowned King. That crowning might change a nature at present blameless. The case is not specific to Caesar, therefore. It is just that, commonly, when men are thus incongruously elevated, those who were not proud before become so. The case as Brutus puts it is tenuous and some critics have seen in this a sign that Brutus is feebly rationalizing a dark impulse which springs from the imperfectly repressed violence in him. In fact there are signs in the play of such a side to Brutus's nature, notably the strangely exultant “red weapons” (3.1.110), but I cannot think that the dominant tenor of this passage is mere rationalization. After all, rationalization usually aims at giving as powerful an appearance as possible of logical completeness. When Hamlet explains his sparing of Claudius at his prayers by observing that to kill a man in a state of grace would be to send him straight to heaven and hence would be no revenge (Hamlet 3.3.72-79), we have an argument at once watertight and insane, and there is therefore an excellent case for supposing that Hamlet is rationalizing his reluctance. Brutus is fairly close in conception to Hamlet, but the tone of this soliloquy, with “there's the question” in line 13, is closer to the beleaguered but still operative sanity of “To be or not to be” (Hamlet 3.1.56f.) than to the faceless logic of “Now might I do it, pat” (Hamlet 3.3.72). Brutus goes out of his way to stress the tenuousness of his case, pauses on all the weak links in the chain, and this, surely, is almost the opposite of rationalization.

I suspect that many who say that such a chain of reasoning is an inadequate basis for any major political act cannot have reflected how much political action is necessarily founded on exactly this sort of “lest he may, prevent” basis. I imagine that most people today would say that republicanism is better than despotism. If you ask them why, they are likely to say that it is right that a people should be, as far as possible, self-governing, rather than subjected to the will of a single individual. If you then point out that in any system which stops short of the total democracy of the (adult, male) ancient Athenians (we will set aside the rigidly aristocratic character of real Roman republicanism!) the processes of government are in fact carried out by representative officers and not by the people at all, the answer is likely to be that as long as the officers remain answerable to the people they are more likely to act in the interest of the people—and now, notice, we have begun to speak in terms of probability.

Now let us make the situation concrete. Imagine yourself a citizen of France, wondering whether to vote for someone rather like General de Gaulle: a figure at the height of his power, who has, let us say, shown a genius for getting his country out of a tight spot, for running a system in trouble. What would such voters say? Well, they would of course say many different things. But the ones who were worried by the idea of autocratic genius might well say, “The case against him is not personal; it's just that autocracy is inherently dangerous. Of course, we cannot predict with certainty that he will behave corruptly, it is just that he may, and because of that bare possibility it is our duty to stop him.” The seemingly factual character of formally indicative sentences like “Autocracy is bad” resolves itself, in practice, into a cloud of (very serious) probabilities.

Assassination is, to be sure, somewhat more drastic than a transferred vote, but nevertheless Brutus's speech is both moving and impressive in its refusal to dress up a political rationale as something more watertight than it really is. It is curiously refreshing after reading the words of current politicians (who are under very great pressure to sound more certain than they can ever really be). The best place in Brutus's speech is the marvelously laconic

                                                            So Caesar may.
Then, lest he may, prevent.


The lines beginning “And since the quarrel / Will bear no colour for the thing he is, / Fashion it thus” (2.1.28-30) have also been misinterpreted. I used to think that this was an example of what may be called “dissociated motivation,” the kind of thing which we shall see later in Iago, a man who decides what he will believe, what he will be moved by. This puzzled me, because it meant that, according to the scheme which was beginning to form in my mind, Brutus would have to be classified as “overevolved.”

The underevolved archaic man includes in his ego many things we consider external. The ordinarily evolved man includes within the ego such things as feelings and beliefs but excludes physical attributes, to a greater or lesser extent. According to this sequence the overevolved man might narrow the field of the ego still further, until it was able to watch, in arrogant isolation, the inept dance of emotions and appetites, now psychically objectified. But I was wrong. Although there is a faint pre-echo of Iago here, this sentence has a different context and a different logic.

Brutus is not, in fact, proposing to feign a belief and then to execute the fiction in real life. He is saying to himself “It is no use trying to construct this case with reference to what I know of Caesar, now. Rather, put it this way.” To paraphrase thus is indeed to soften the worrying word “fashion,” which obstinately retains a suggestion of fiction (I have conceded a faint anticipation of Iago's manner). Nevertheless, the main tenor of the idiom is donnishly abstract rather than cynically self-manipulative. It is much closer to the philosopher's “Let's try the argument this way” than to “This shall be my motive.” If it is asked, “Why, then, granting that the Iago-subaudition is only a subaudition, did Shakespeare allow it into the line?” the answer is, perhaps, because he wished to hint that the second state of mind was, in a sinister fashion, latent in the first; that the proper corruption of moral abstraction is diabolical cynicism. Brutus stands on the edge of a pit, but he has not yet fallen.

Moreover this psychic isolation of the reflective ego is not natural to Brutus as it is to Iago. It is really the product of a special moral effort, the Stoic assertion of reason against disabling emotion. For the beginning of “overevolved” dissociation of the ego from ordinary feeling is likewise latent, or present as a potential corruption, in Stoic philosophy. Aeneas, weeping yet successfully separating his reason from his love of Dido, is great and at the same time rather weird. The panic-stricken retreat into a private area of the mind as being alone governable by the rational will can lead, almost by its own inner impetus, to forms of scepticism which would have shocked the Stoics themselves. The person who is broken-hearted is given the dangerous consolation (dangerous, because it can in the long run erode the very notion of value) “You yourself can decide what is good and what is bad.” Hamlet's “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (2.2.248) is pivotal. It reaches back into Stoicism and forward into abysses of modern scepticism. But the contraction of the ego is the principal point at issue, and it is important to remember that in Stoicism this contraction always takes place in a context of moral effort. There is therefore a real difference between Brutus's straining to bring to bear reason, and reason alone, on the one hand and Iago's unblinking survey of his own motives on the other. Nevertheless there is in Julius Caesar a real, though faint, analogue to Iago, and that is Mark Antony.

Consider the behaviour of Mark Antony, first, when he moves into the circle of the assassins as they stand round the body of the newly slain Caesar (3.1) and, second, in his great oration (3.2). In 3.1, Antony moves, with great circumspection but also with extraordinary “nerve” within sword's length of men who may at any moment turn on him. He is their greatest potential danger, but the potentiality (as with Caesar) is fraught with doubt. These are the reasonings of a Brutus and it is on them that Antony counts. The conscientiousness of Brutus is for him a weakness to be exploited. Antony knows just how much of his grief for Caesar it is safe to express. He shakes hands with the murderers and is left alone on the stage, to plot the ruin of Rome.

Notice, in passing, that my entire account of this scene has been written in bull-bloodedly Transparent language; I have been considering Shakespeare's Brutus and Antony, not indeed as direct portraits of their historical originals, but at least as possible human beings and I have not scrupled to make inferences and even, at times, to guess. Yet, in the closing sentence of the last paragraph, I wrote, not “left alone in the Capitol,” but “left alone on the stage.” The logical slippage from the tenor to vehicle is entirely easy and creates no difficulties for the reader, because it mirrors a movement of the mind which is habitual to playgoers and playreaders.

We may further ask, is Antony sincere? The question, oddly enough, can be answered with slightly more confidence when the reference is to a fictional person (where the clues are finite) than with reference to a real-life person (where they are indefinite and in any case liable to subversion). I think that Antony is sincere. He feels real grief for Caesar but is, so to speak, effortlessly separate from the grief even while he feels it. We therefore have something which is psychologically more disquieting than the ordinary machiavel, who pretends emotion while he coldly intrigues for power. Antony feels his emotions and then rides them, controls them, moderating their force as need arises.

Thus the great oration is at once artificial and an authentically passional performance. I would have the actor, if he can, go so far as to weep in the delivery of it (“his eyes are red as fire with weeping”—3.2.115) in order to give maximum effect to the conclusion of the oration, at which point Antony, his own emotion ebbing from its licensed height, watches the mob run screaming from him and says, like one who has administered a mass injection, “Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot” (3.3.261). Naturally it is Brutus who is the man of the past, the doomed order of things, and Antony who is the man of the future. When Brutus patiently explained, with lucid logic, how he had killed his friend to save Rome from the rule of an individual, the crowd applauds him with the dreadful “Let him be Caesar” (3.2.50). They do not understand the rigorous, tormented morality of his action and he, in his turn, does not understand the place in history to which he has come.

The Romanness, the unEnglishness, of all this is evident. Moreover, within that powerfully imagined Romanness we have, not only contrasts of individual with individual, but prior contrasts, operating in the region intermediate between individuals and the cultural remoteness of Rome. I mean a contrast between different degrees of psychic and political evolution within a Roman setting. Brutus, the Republican, addresses a populace which spontaneously embraces monarchy, thus exemplifying one of the paradoxes of liberalism identified by Sir Karl Popper (though Plato was there before him): what happens when a democracy decides in favour of tyranny? Brutus, the aristocrat, his theoretic Stoicism borne on a foundation of shame-culture, on ancient heroic dignity, belongs to the Roman past. He can do the Stoic trick (rather like “isolating” a muscle) of separating his reason from his passions but he cannot exploit his own motivating passions with the coolness of an Antony. With all his fondness for statuesque postures Brutus remains morally more spontaneous than Antony.

In 4.3 there is a notorious textual crux. Brutus and Cassius quarrel and are uneasily reconciled. Shakespeare presents the quarrel with great realism and elicits from his audience a high degree of sympathy with both figures. At 4.3.141 Cassius observes, wonderingly, “I did not think you could have been so angry,” and, a moment later, with a hint of a taunt so that we fear the quarrel may break out again, he adds,

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


Brutus answers, bleakly, that Portia, his wife, is dead. Cassius is at once overwhelmed with contrition at his own coarse hostility. Brutus tells, shortly, the horrible story of Portia's suicide by swallowing fire and calls for wine, to “bury all unkindness” (4.3.152). Titinius and Messala then enter. Brutus welcomes them, volubly, and the talk is all of military movements and public events in Rome. Then the spate of talk dries up and the following dialogue takes place:

Had you your letters from your wife, lord?
No, Messala.
Nor nothing in your letters writ of her?
Nothing, Messala.
That, methinks, is strange.
Why ask you? Hear you aught of her in yours?
No, my lord.
Now, as you are a Roman, tell me true.
Then like a Roman bear the truth I tell:
For certain she is dead, and by strange manner.
Why, farewell, Portia. We must die, Messala.
With meditating that she must die once,
I have the patience to endure it now.
Even so great men great losses should endure.
I have as much of this in art as you,
But yet my nature could not bear it so.


Brutus receives the news from Messala as if for the first time, although he has just confided to Cassius that he knows, and Cassius is still there, listening to every word. To make matters worse, Brutus's self-control is applauded as a Stoic feat and Brutus accepts the applause. And still Cassius is there, watching and listening.

The easiest way out of these difficulties is to suppose that Shakespeare wrote two alternative versions and that both have somehow survived, in incongruous juxtaposition, in the 1632 Folio text (the sole authority for this play). To take this course at one stroke removes both the difficulties and the tense excitement of the scene. Brents Stirling, in an article which may serve as a model of the proper marriage of literary criticism and textual scholarship, argued for the retention of both versions. He observes that Brutus is in a state of nervous excitement after the quarrel with Cassius (notice his extreme irritation with the sententious poet who enters at 4.3.122). In this state, bordering on exhaustion, Brutus attempts to put Messala aside with his blankly mendacious “Nothing” at line 182. But Messala will not be put off and Brutus is forced to question him. Thereupon Messala “turns witless in the crisis” and answers “No, my lord” at 184. Brutus tries to resolve the impossible situation with “Now, as you are a Roman, tell me true.” Messala catches the manner, is freed from his petrified immobility by the familiar style, and from here on forces Brutus to play out the episode in the full Stoic manner. At its conclusion Brutus's head is bowed at the humiliating praise he has received from Messala.

Given this reading, the comment of Cassius is immediately luminous. He has watched his fellow commander, in a state of near-collapse, lie and then reassert, artificially, his command over himself and his subordinates. Brutus's “Nothing” was pure nature. It is the kind of speech which in life is wholly probable and becomes “impossible” only when challenged by the customary canons of art. Brutus then pulled himself back and this too was nature. From the recovered ground he framed his formal response to Messala and secured the required result. Cassius who has seen the “nature” of Brutus humiliated in the lie also perceives in the very recovery of will a feat of natural endurance. His comment is almost ironic but is at the same time movingly generous and intelligent; he observes that he could just about match Brutus's rhetoric, but he could never be so strong and brave.

This is not to say that there are no rough edges in the text as we have it. There is formal evidence in the Folio of revision. This has been investigated by Brents Stirling in a second article. The speech headings give “Cassi” until “Enter a Poet.” Then, in the lines which report the death of Portia we get “Cas.” At line 164, “Portia, art thou gone?” (which may be a single-line insertion), we get “Cass.” The passage containing suspected additions has different prefix forms and the passages both before and after it have standard forms. Admittedly there is considerable variation of “Cassi” and “Cas” throughout the play and this must weaken the presumption of interpolation in so far as it is founded on speech headings. But the changes are so timed (in conjunction with the obvious oddity of the presentation) as to suggest some sort of process of revision, which has not been satisfactorily completed. What is not shown at all is that the revision was intended as a replacement of one version by another. It remains entirely possible that Shakespeare, revising, determined to show us a Brutus reacting twice to the same event and merely failed to complete the “joinery.” Brutus's lie might then have been more carefully “framed.” We need not infer that it would have been removed.

Thus, even when Brutus's Stoicism is most artificial, most plainly exerted by will, we sense not only what is exerted but the human will which exerts; we sense a person with an emotional life. That indeed is why the artificiality is so excruciating. In Antony it would scarcely be noticed.

Brutus is presented by Shakespeare as an interplay of nature and art; the art, to be sure, is Brutus's. If we step back and view the whole, both the art and the nature of Brutus are equally formed by the art of Shakespeare. Brutus's nature is Shakespeare's art. But in conveying something which the audience will receive as nature, Shakespeare must (and does) consult and defer to reality. Therefore among the many excellencies of Julius Caesar we may include a specific success in realism.

Bruce Weber (review date 22 January 2003)

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SOURCE: Weber, Bruce. Review of Julius Caesar.New York Times (22 January 2003): B5, E5.

[In the following review of Karin Coonrod's 2003 Theatre for a New Audience production of Julius Caesar, Weber contends that this production's contemporary American setting and anti-conservative political agenda obscured rather than broadened the drama's underlying character conflicts.]

Like a lot of intelligent people, Shakespeare was amazed at the paradox of political speech—that it is demonstrably misleading, and that people believe it anyway. This is the bizarre quirk of human nature that Julius Caesar deals with especially. And because politics is never without purveyors of egregious, self-serving lies, the play is perpetually relevant. Though it doesn't have the psychological depth of Hamlet and doesn't achieve or even aim for the grievous sadness of King Lear, it can really make you outraged.

Outrage appears to be very much on the mind of the director Karin Coonrod, whose Julius Caesar opened Sunday at the Lucille Lortel Theater. Without making it explicit, the show reads as a protest against the Republican oligarchy in Washington.

From the opening scenes in this modern-dress production, the director uses the costuming and manner of her actors to evoke the contemporary American nexus of conservative political power among the government, the military and the corporate elite. Until they change to military khakis in the bellicose aftermath of Caesar's funeral, the senators are all in charcoal suits with crisp white shirts and sharp haircuts. And Ms. Coonrod has encouraged a weaselly aspect from the performers, led by an oily Daniel Oreskes as Cassius, and by Simeon Moore, who plays Casca as a self-righteous but inconsequential know-it-all.

It's an approach that attenuates the grand debate over the future of Rome, making the usurping senators seem like gossipmongers in the halls of Enron or lackeys in a Karl Rove strategy session. From the outset, this is a conspiracy more venal than noble. And it works very well at first.

There is something sly and wicked to the scenes leading up to the assassination. Ultimately, however, the diminishment of the characters for partisan purposes doesn't serve the play, and Ms. Coonrod's production very quickly descends into bombastic melodrama.

This is mostly because the genuine conflicts within Cassius, Brutus (Thomas M. Hammond), Marc Antony (Graham Winton) and Caesar himself (Earl Hindman) are explicitly spelled out by Shakespeare, and their true motives are so thoroughly implied as to be evident. The play has become the standard introduction to Shakespearean tragedy because these guys are so openly full of baloney that even a junior high school student can't fail to recognize their hypocrisy and hunger for power.

The egos of these men are so bloated, their rhetoric so self-justifying, that there is something nearly comic about Julius Caesar. Even the most successful renderings of the play don't always avoid titters in the audience during Antony's funeral oration as he archly asserts Brutus's honor.

Here, the Romans are nearly stooges, and comedy almost prevails. As Cassius lavishes praise on Brutus to win him over to the conspiracy, you can't believe that a man ostensibly thoughtful and shrewd would buy such ingratiating nonsense for an instant. When Decius Brutus (Michael Rogers) reinterprets Calpurnia's awful dream, explaining to Caesar that the Romans washing their hands in his blood does not portend his death but represents his nourishment of the citizens, the ploy is transparent.

Ms. Coonrod has larded on the theatrical effects, evidently as counterweights. She has always had an affinity for stark bravado and ordinarily brings a keen sense of proportion to her work, but this time she has miscalibrated her thunder. Staging the play on a set consisting largely of cement-gray dividers, she uses a phalanx of headlights that intermittently emit blasts of blinding glare from the dark recesses of the stage. Fiercely percussive blasts of industrial-sounding recorded music accentuate the play's many harbingers of doom. The effect is oppressive and heavy-handed.

And though the cast handles Shakespearean English with great clarity and confidence—Mr. Winton is the most weightily cagey of the principals, doing especially well with the eloquent manipulations of Antony's funeral oration—the show ends up almost as an unintended parody of the grandiosity its text holds suspect. Mr. Hindman's Caesar is especially blustery and foolish, almost impossible to believe as a credible icon, much less as a terrifying ghost.

And though Mr. Hammond, a lithe actor with a trim beard (he looks considerably more lean and hungry than the burly Mr. Oreskes), is suitably tormented by his decision to help murder Caesar, he never exhibits the gravitas of “the noblest Roman of them all.” He's Harvey L. Pitt or Trent Lott, easily sacrificed or shunted aside. In the end you may find yourself more impatient than moved during his death scene.

Bruce Weber (review date 22 July 2003)

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SOURCE: Weber, Bruce. Review of Julius Caesar.New York Times (22 July 2003): E1, E5.

[In the following review, Weber admires director 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.]

Julius Caesar is so full of aphorisms and declarations that onstage it often succumbs to pomposity. The play is so concerned with the difference between what men say and what they think as they jockey for power that it is frequently performed with two-faced hyperbole. And it is so determined to illustrate the manipulative nature of politics that in performance it can drip with irony or light up its contemporary relevance in neon. No wonder it is a junior high school classic.

The wonder of Daniel Sullivan's gripping horror movie of a Julius Caesar at the Old Globe Theater here through Aug. 10 is that while the play remains as clear as glass to the average 13-year-old, and the production as alluring as a video game, it is also a pertinent, politically shrewd and subtly fearful prognostication regarding the world we now live in.

The actors, led by Robert Foxworth, as a Brutus of fine masculine integrity, and Robin Gammell, who plays the title role as a man with waning strength but not waning dignity, handle Shakespeare's most thumping pentameter with a terrific conversational ease.

They talk; they don't bray. And they listen to one another.

In the opening acts, as the senators conspire to Caesar's murder, the high stakes are evident in the actors' tense exchanges, not their asides and declamations.

And after the murder, when Cassius is scolded by Brutus in their military encampment, the scene becomes a verbal contest that seems almost muscular, as though the two men were arm wrestling, shaming Cassius with the same slow-to-arrive inevitability.

Even the flaming funeral oratory of Brutus and Mark Antony (Michael James Reed) is calibrated to a level of sincerity. It's fervent, all right, but well beneath bombast. As a result this is a rare Julius Caesar in which the ordinary, ear-lending Romans and countrymen don't seem a herd of stupid sheep. Rather they come across as legitimately confused and hungry for leadership, a dramatic state that is hugely effective as a way of connecting with an audience.

This isn't to say that Mr. Sullivan has eschewed every melodramatic gambit. In the Lowell Davies Festival Theater, the Old Globe's outdoor auditorium—whose natural backdrop and celestial roof give the actors the room for physical robustness and make the battle scenes especially vivid—he has given the play a futuristic setting. It's Rome at the end of the 21st century, after the toppling of the American empire, in a world that has fragmented into tribal chaos. Rome is poor, full of refugees and scavengers, a society that makes do with obsolete material goods.

This is a science fiction conceit. (Didn't Star Trek do an episode like this once?) But its purpose is ingenious; it makes the ruin of an ancient city—its disrepair handsomely recreated by the designer Ralph Funicello—no less relevant as a bygone time and place than the Balkans of the early 1990's, Chechnya of more recent vintage, or current day Baghdad, all of which Mr. Sullivan and his designers (costumes by Lewis Brown, lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin, sound by Dan Moses Schreier) manage to suggest at one time or another.

In this day and age Brutus and Antony have the use of microphones for their orations; senators wear ties and Caesar a white suit; the war is conducted with automatic weapons and bombs (though still no W.M.D.'s).

And the conspirators have a problem Shakespeare never imagined. You may find yourself wondering why Brutus collects their weapons the night before the murder and secrets them in a briefcase. But when Casca (played in a Hawaiian shirt by the superb Dakin Matthews as a fashionable, effeminate older man who needs assistance to walk), enters the Senate on the ides of March, he trips off the security sensors on a metal detector with a dagger hidden in his cane.

These reminders of today's world work powerfully in the context of a future in which the lust for power by hubristic men seems eternal. The world Mr. Sullivan envisions here is terrifyingly suggestive, as though it is now being wrought, a world in which arrogant might rules, in which the young (Mr. Reed and, as Octavius, Andrew McGinn, are decidedly of a newer generation than Mr. Foxworth and Mr. Gammell) are born into conflict, in which the many are held in thrall to the few who can and do justify their means with self-serving ends.

It may seem of small note, a not infrequently seen Shakespeare tragedy in a regional theater, a show that was designed for a particular space and that won't be seen anywhere else after its limited run. But for one thing this is exemplary work. And for another, it is being presented at a time when bright theater lights are scattered around the country as they have never been before.

Mr. Sullivan is one of the American theater's more prolific and accomplished directors (he won a Tony for Proof), and it is worth pointing out that his productions have appeared regionally as often as they have in New York. He was artistic director of Seattle Repertory Theater for 17 seasons, so he knows about the talent that grows and even flourishes away from the national spotlight.

A case in point: the night I saw Julius Caesar, a young understudy, Michael Newman, played Cassius (filling in for Joel Polis). And though it was evident he was under-rehearsed (he flubbed a line or two), Mr. Newman's ability to react within the confines of his character was impressive. Among other things, his youth added the element of callowness to his character, so in the encampment scene with Brutus the effect was of an upstart being slapped down, reduced from “sir” to “sonny.”

In any case, in holding his own in the joust with the veteran Mr. Foxworth, Mr. Newman more than earned his fellow cast members' appreciative applause at the end of the evening. Mr. Newman may perform in New York one day, maybe even on Broadway, but as this Julius Caesar has proven in San Diego, he doesn't have to.

Marvin L. Vawter (essay date July 1973)

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SOURCE: Vawter, Marvin L. “Julius Caesar: Rupture in the Bond.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 72, no. 3 (July 1973): 311-28.

[In the following essay, Vawter contends that Julius Caesar 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.]

Among the many questions raised in Julius Caesar, one of the most important is Cassius' rhetorical question to Brutus amidst his vehement characterization of 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?


Cassius does not require an answer, for it is his way of conveying the enormity of Caesar's tyranny. In metaphors of physical size, he describes for Brutus and for us a beast feeding on other men, so gargantuan that he “doth bestride the narrow world / Like a Colossus, and we petty men / Walk under his huge legs, and peep about” (I.ii.133-35). So “monstrous” and “prodigious grown” (I.iii.71, 77) is Caesar that Rome's “wide walks” have “room enough” for only him (I.ii.153-54).1

Since at this point in the play we have had only a brief glimpse of Caesar (he has spoken seventeen relatively insignificant lines) and we have no reason to distrust Cassius, his description of Caesar has a strong impact on us. In fact, the interchange in I.ii between Brutus and Cassius, punctuated by the off-stage shouts of the populace (I.ii.77 s.d., 130 s.d.) which, Brutus says, indicate that “the people / Choose Caesar for their king” (I.ii.78-79), tends to build a very strong case against Caesar. Although on stage but a short time, Caesar's entrance and exit are quite spectacular, even regal, followed as he is by “a great crowd” (I.ii.1 s.d.) and by men quick to obey his bidding: “When Caesar says, ‘Do this,’ it is perform'd” (I.ii.10). Add to this the damaging point of view of these two men, one of whom is said to have “Thoughts of great value, worthy cogitations” (I.ii.49), men who speak repeatedly of “honour” and “virtue” and “love” (I.ii.33, 35, 46, 72, 81, 85, 87-89, 91, 136, 160, 166) and who profess their concern for “the general good” (I.ii.84) of Rome. Finally, there is the damning evidence of the shouts, clear audible proof that Caesar is at this moment usurping power. If we can believe what we hear from Brutus and Cassius—obviously honorable and loving men—and what we hear off-stage, as interpreted by Brutus—obviously a reliable interpreter—if we can believe what we hear, Caesar is indeed a malicious tyrant and something must be done about him.

With this characterization of Caesar established, the formation of the conspiracy to eliminate Caesar rapidly gains momentum, for these “noble” Romans (I.ii.62, 169) will no longer suffer “bondage.” Escape from “bondage” will be the rallying call of the conspirators. If Caesar cannot be stopped, “Cassius from bondage will deliver Cassius” (I.iii.90). Casca, no less an enemy to tyranny, has equally inspiring words on liberty:

                                                                                                              So can I:
So every bondman in his own hand bears
The power to cancel his captivity.


When Cassius reveals his hate for the “vile” Caesar to Casca, he pauses to ask if Casca is “a willing bondman” (I.ii.113). Similarly, following the assassination, Brutus asks the people, “Who is here so base, that would be a bondman? If any, speak; for him I have offended” (III.ii.30-31). And when Brutus has committed suicide rather than “go bound to Rome” (V.i.112), Strato proudly tells Messala that Brutus is “Free from the bondage you are in, Messala” (V.v.54).

From this perspective Juilus Caesar is a stirring but sad drama of virtuous men who, though living in slavery, are possessed of courage and the noble desire for freedom, but who fail because their idealism is no match for the power of Caesarism. They do not overthrow the tyrant, but they do free themselves from “bondage” by dying bravely and achieving “glory by this losing day” (V.v.36). Music up, fade out slowly.

Such is a fair synopsis of the play—or, to be more precise, the play in which Brutus performs his “Roman's part” (V.v.89). It is of course not the whole play, only the play within the play which, with some license, I shall call “Brutus' play.” The rub, however, is that Brutus' play consists entirely of words; there is no action to enforce the verbalization of events. Precisely as “Roman actors do” (II.i.226), Brutus and his fellow tragedians in the conspiracy read to us a Roman tragedy, a Senecan series of speeches in which the characters narrate off-stage events. His play has no “dramatic present,” no physical correlative. Caesar as an enslaving beast, for example, simply does not appear in Brutus' play; he has no onstage scene which would verify his tyranny, the absence of which perhaps explains in part why Brutus can say with devastating irony, “We all stand up against the spirit of Caesar, / And in the spirit of men there is no blood” (II.i.166-67). Just as the tyrannous “spirit of Caesar” is a nonphysical thing, so Brutus' play need not—in fact, cannot—give it stage action. Other “facts” in Brutus' play are similarly relegated to off-stage and are only verbally reported: for example, (1) Caesar's coronation, (2) the purpose of the letter from the people (II.i.46 ff.—Brutus adds his own “lines,” as it were, to fill out the letter's sparse contents: “Thus must I piece it out”), (3) Antony's frivolous and inept character (II.i.185-89), (4) the decorous “sacrifice” itself (II.i.167 ff.), (5) the “reason” Brutus said he would “show” to the people for the murder but never does (III.i.237), (6) the cries of his servants in response to the ghost (IV.iii.294 ff.), (7) the “cold demeanour” of Octavius' army (V.ii.4), and (8) the debasing and ignominious way in which Antony and Octavius treat captives (V.i.109-12). This is an outline of the Stoic-Senecan drama of Fate read to us by Brutus, but in each instance Brutus creates the event in his own mind.

Regrettably for Brutus, the larger drama—the one Shakespeare wrote and of which Brutus' play is only a part—is filled with action, most of which contradicts the words of the other. I should like now to reapproach Julius Caesar as an integrated whole, keeping in mind my earlier synopsis of Brutus' partial play. Consider, for example, the notion that Caesar has made noble Romans into “bondmen,” that Brutus and Cassius are in “bondage.” What does Shakespeare's play offer as the correlative action for this perspective? A profoundly ironic series of mirrors.

Despite Cassius' disgust with his “bondage,” he still uses the term as metaphor. He is, after all, not of the servant class, but a free Roman republican. There are, however, actual “bondmen” in Shakespeare's play, and their reaction to their bond is surely meant to be instructive. Real bondmen here show no desire for “liberty” in Cassius' sense of the term. To achieve his release from “bondage,” Cassius promises freedom to “Pindarus his bondman” (V.iii.56) if Pindarus will help him commit suicide. Yet Cassius words the request in a curious mixture of preemptive demand and abject plea:

Come hither, sirrah.
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.
Now be a freeman. …


Upon performing this last order which will mean release from his bond to Cassius, Pindarus delivers a poignant comment over the bleeding body:

So, I am free; yet would not so have been,
Durst I have done my will. O Cassius!


Pindarus' heartfelt reaction, I should argue, represents the moral touchstone of the play on killing to escape bondage. Only by denying his own “will” can he be a “freeman”—an agent of free will. Obviously, Pindarus' lament posits a different definition of “bond” for us to consider.

Similarly, Strato and Messala, both in service to Brutus, whom they call “master” and “lord,” show no evidence that they share Brutus' desire for freedom. Messala, addressing Strato as “my master's man,” asks, “where is thy master?” Strato, over Brutus' body, replies, “Free from the bondage you are in, Messala” (V.v.49-64). But Strato is merely using Brutus' language, not his own. Immediately, in an action that alters Brutus' escape from “bondage” into little more than a tragic joke, Strato eagerly accepts Octavius' invitation to “bestow thy time with me” (V.v.61). Furthermore, Strato does so after being recommended to Octavius by Messala, who is not in “bondage” at all, but in willing and apparently grateful service to Octavius. Both Strato and Messala, in other words, freely unite themselves with Octavius in a new bond of duty.2 Again, as with Pindarus, the difference between bond and bondage turns on the word “will”:

Fellow, wilt thou bestow thy time with me?
Ay, if Messala will prefer me to you.


In the same sense that Pindarus, Strato, and Messala are willing bondmen, dutifully serving their masters, so Lucius, another “servant” to Brutus, provides an undistorted perspective on willing service to authority. Waking Lucius from his sleep twice in the play to do his bidding, as he must awaken Strato to aid in his suicide, Brutus asks Lucius to “hold up thy heavy eyes awhile, / And touch thy instrument a strain or two” (IV.iii.255-56). Lucius is quite willing, if it should “please” Brutus: “It does, my boy,” says Brutus, but he adds, “I trouble thee too much, but thou art willing.” Lucius responds, “It is my duty, sir” (IV.iii.255-59). Lucius, Pindarus, Strato, and Messala—real bondmen to their masters—are Shakespeare's symbols of loyal commitment and service. The thought of “liberty” does not move them; love is the motive force in these men. They do not endlessly profess their “love” and “honor” (they do not use the words at all, despite the prolific use of these words by the noblemen), but they do not have to profess. Their love for their masters is dramatically verifiable by the deeds with which they honor their bonds of duty.

That love is, or should be, the binding force between servant and master in this world is even recognized, ironically, by Cassius. Antony is, says Brutus, only “Caesar's arm” (II.i.182), one of the “limbs” of Caesar that Brutus refuses to “hack” (II.i.163). Cassius, however, perceives more clearly that there is an inseparable cohesion between Antony and Caesar that will transcend the severing of Caesar's physical head: “yet I fear him; / For the ingrafted love he bears to Caesar” (II.i.183-84).

Love had once bound Brutus to Portia in a healthy union of reciprocal affection and sustenance. Just as there is a contract that unifies servant and master (“keep thine oath,” Cassius says to Pindarus) into a viable community, so the family is a natural social unit symbolized by a vow of mutual sharing in a common good and a common obligation. Portia's pleas to Brutus, begging him to share his secret with her, amount to a major orchestration in the symphony of “bond” and its antiphony of “bondage”:

By all your vows of love, and that great vow
Which did incorporate and make us one,
That you unfold to me, your self, your half
Why you are heavy. …


Then, on her knees to Brutus, she climaxes her petition of love:

Within the bond of marriage, tell me, Brutus,
Is it excepted I should know no secrets
That appertain to you? Am I your self
But, as it were, in sort of limitation,
To keep with you at meals, comfort your bed,
And talk with you sometimes? Dwell I but in the suburbs
Of your good pleasure? If it be no more,
Portia is Brutus' harlot, not his wife.


Brutus has manifestly ruptured the “bond” of marriage and, in so doing, is in danger of perverting “bond” into “bondage”; what else is Portia becoming but his concubine? From a wife Brutus is altering Portia into a “harlot.” But there is the important suggestion as well that the greatest damage is that which Brutus is doing to himself in his self-sufficient denial of Portia's companionship. Portia literally and symbolically is Brutus' other “self,” his “half” that is now forced to dwell in the “suburbs.” In severing his bond with her and in perverting her, we are meant to see Brutus' potential perversion of a part of his own soul, a rupture in the bond of a man. One half of the Stoic Brutus is becoming a tyrant to the other half in bondage.

The most important mirror in which we see reflected the ironic truth of the conspirators' escape from bondage is the conspiratorial pact itself. In the act of abrogating their allegiance to Caesar so that they may assert their individual freedom, the assassins nonetheless unconsciously testify to man's inclination to seek protective communion with others. “Give me your hands all over, one by one,” says Brutus. Cassius goes further: “And let us swear our resolution” (II.i.112-13). Now “resolution” in Cassius' mind means, in effect, “let us swear our unified determination,” thereby suggesting the communal impulse for mutual protection. But “resolution” in the sixteenth century would have ambiguous overtones, for the term could also mean the process by which a unity is reduced or separated into its component elements, as in death. Wyclif's Bible, for example, uses the word in the latter sense: “The time of my resolucioun … is nyȝ” (2 Tim. 4:6). Another connotation is inherent in the word for an audience familiar with alchemy, because the term was used in reference to conversion into something else, or into a different form (OED). Alchemical change, in fact, is precisely what Cassius had in mind when he enlisted Brutus for the conspiracy. He tells Casca that “three parts of him / Is ours already.” Casca does not miss the allusion to alchemy and continues the metaphor:

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


That is, Brutus' Stoic virtue will be sufficient to change miraculously a brutal murder into a pious act—into, as we later learn, a “sacrifice” (II.i.166). Changing elements into fire (one stage of the alchemical process)3 is also in Brutus' mind as he lectures to the conspirators on “the insuppressive mettle of our spirits” (II.i.134). There is, he says, “fire enough” in the “even virtue of our enterprise” (II.i.120, 133), and that virtue, as Casca had envisioned, will suffice to insure their success. On that basis, Brutus overrules Cassius' desire that they “swear” their “resolution.” “No, not an oath,” he says (II.i.114).

Refusing to take an oath is a Stoic trait,4 for the Stoic Wise Man sees himself as an independent entity unwilling to bind himself to any specific community. His entirely private personality and his obsession with the self-sufficiency of his virtue-reason (the essential basis of Stoic philosophy) separate him from ordinary men. Yet there is a “bond” of sorts being enacted here. Brutus refuses an oath, which would mean mutual and equitable obligation—as it had meant in the “vows” exchanged with Portia—but he does speak of a binding force:

                                                                                                    what other bond
Than secret Romans, that have spoke the word,
And will not palter? and what other oath
Than honesty to honesty engag'd. …


Speaking the “word,” as if it were an incantation, the conspirators agree to the secret bond in order to break their bondage to Caesar. But Brutus' methods belie his “words.” Instead of an oath, he argues that the “face of men” (II.i.114) is enough insurance, “honesty to honesty engag'd.” These men, Brutus is saying, are entirely trustworthy; anyone can see that. Just before the conspirators entered, however, Brutus painted their faces for us quite differently:

                                                                                                              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?


Evidently Brutus' vision of the conspiracy is ambivalent. Furthermore, the equality of their bond that he professes becomes, at the moment he forbids the swearing of an oath, a sham. From then on, Brutus' role in the conspiracy expands to that of absolute dictator—not equal partner—as he overrules with high-handed prerogative on every crucial issue: on the necessity of Antony's death, on the prudence of allowing Antony to speak at the funeral, on the battle strategy, and on when to sound the attack. Especially significant are Brutus' reasons for rejecting Cicero as a member of the “faction”:5

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


Not only is the speech an example of Brutus' continual defamation of other men unwarranted by any action that we see; it is also self-condemning. Brutus is himself a follower in a thing that other men began, but he is clearly not willing to remain a follower. Roles reverse at this point, and the conspiracy now attends on Brutus with servile obedience. Caius Ligarius, upon joining the conspiracy, says to Brutus, “I follow you, / To do I know not what; but it sufficeth / That Brutus leads me on” (II.i.331-34). Even Cassius, the most ardent pursuer of independence, shouts after the assassination, “Ay, every man away. / Brutus shall lead, and we will grace his heels” (III.i.119-20).

Artemidorus, in his letter to Caesar, describes exactly what has occurred in the conspiracy: “There is but one mind in all these men, and it is bent against Caesar” (II.iii.4-5). The “one mind” is Brutus now “prodigious grown” himself because the conspirators have flattered his ego, and that flattery has worked an alchemical change on Brutus' base metal. Cassius knew full well the effect that flattery could have on Brutus: “Well, Brutus, thou art noble; yet I see / Thy honourable mettle may be wrought” (I.ii.305-306), Cassius says to himself after having praised Brutus' ancestry, virtue, and nobility—flattery which has had, as Cassius points out, a noticeable effect on Brutus. As the conspirators enter to formulate their plans, the flattery continues:

                                                                      no man here
But honors you; and every one doth wish
You had but that opinion of yourself
Which every noble Roman bears of you.


The alchemical philosopher's stone here is flattery—the mockery of love—and men are changed by it into something else. Decius Brutus will reshape Caesar:

But when I tell him he hates flatterers,
He says he does, being then most flattered.
Let me work;
For I can give his humour the true bent.


And Brutus says of Caius Ligarius, “I'll fashion him” (II.i.220).

Before our eyes men are being remade, perversely re-created, and word-concepts are changing along with them. As Brutus' “opinion of himself” outdistances the opinion the conspirators have of him, he becomes a Colossus of his own; and the bond of the conspirators becomes bondage to a new tyrant. The irony climaxes in the quarrel scene as we watch a dramatic image of tyrant and slave together, Brutus viciously chiding Cassius without warrant. Cassius cries out, “When Caesar liv'd, he durst not thus have mov'd me” (II.iii.58). Manifestly a worse tyrant than we ever see in Caesar, Brutus perverts Cassius into his court-jester as he had debased Portia into his concubine:

                                                                                          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.


Brutus drops the pretense of equality implied in “honesty to honesty engag'd,” and now sees only himself “arm'd so strong in honesty” (IV.iii.67) that his original profession of engagement to other men is abrogated. Cassius, the conspirator who most feared bondage to Caesar, dejectedly articulates the irony:

Cassius is aweary of the world:
Hated by one he loves; brav'd by his brother;
Check'd like a bondman.


Brutus' professions of love for both Caesar and Cassius ring hollow now as Cassius bitterly utters,

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.


The conspirators' flight from what they conceive as bondage has resulted, therefore, in manifold ironies. To break their bond to Caesar, they are compelled to create a new bond. But this new “compact” (III.i.215), formed to commit murder, is manifestly perverse from the beginning. Whether or not they had in fact been in bondage to Caesar, clearly they are in self-destroying bondage to Brutus, blindly following him to their death, submitting to his “will” alone.6 Perverting all around him, eliminating the separate selves of Portia, Cassius, Ligarius, and the rest, the centripetal force of Brutus' ego consumes all in its path until it becomes the “one mind in all these men.”

The question put by Cassius—“Upon what meat does this our Caesar feed?”—is really therefore a dual question that must include not just Caesar but Brutus as well. What indeed perverts the head of a social unit—whether that unit be a state, a family, or a parody of society, a “faction”—into a tyrant? What unnatural change, what alchemy, makes a bond into bondage?

If we see the first scene of Caesar in proper perspective, the answer is implied there. Marullus and Flavius, tribunes of the people, know well that “ceremonies” (I.i.65) to Caesar are dangerous. Their concern is not for the thing that Caesar is, but for what he could become if too much praise is heaped on him:

These growing feathers pluck'd from Caesar's wing
Will make him fly an ordinary pitch,
Who else would soar above the view of men
And keep us all in servile fearfulness.


The tribunes thus offer a wholly different point of view from Cassius—who sees Caesar as already “prodigious grown” into a “Colossus.” For Flavius, the danger lies in undue flattery to Caesar. Take away the blandishments—he does not say take away the man—and Caesar will “fly an ordinary pitch.”

Cassius similarly tells Casca in animal analogies that abject servility makes Caesar into a prodigy of nature:

And why should Caesar be a tyrant then?
Poor man! I know he would not be a wolf,
But that he sees the Romans are but sheep;
He were no lion, were not Romans hinds.


Although far more severe than Flavius' falcon analogy, Cassius' analogical scheme unknowingly reflects a similarly imbalanced image of men in nature and offers the cause—all without including himself in the complex. Nothing so enrages Cassius as Antony's charge that he is a base “flatterer” (V.i.39-47) of Caesar; clearly, he does not perceive himself as a willing slave. He would have us believe that his is a forced but insolent bondage. The sequence of cause and effect is crucial: Cassius thinks himself compelled to submit to Caesar—as he later thinks himself “compell'd” (V.i.75) to obey Brutus—because Caesar has grown so powerful:

                                                                                                    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.


But Cassius' view is distorted, quite contrary to the dramatic image that Shakespeare presents. One of the central ironies of Caesar is that the men who most violently avow their hatred of the thing that flattery creates are the men who flatter Caesar most. Each time Caesar's pride burgeons forth, it is immediately preceded by base flattery from the conspirators. At the moment when Caesar is about to give in to Calphurnia's pleas that he remain at home on the Ides of March, Decius Brutus enters to “work” on Caesar's ego. Caesar is reluctant to articulate why he refuses to go to the Capitol, saying simply, “The cause is in my will: I will not come” (II.ii.71). But, like the will of Pindarus and the will of Cassius, Caesar's will is overruled, in this case by his own ego, which Decius proceeds to flatter by changing Calphurnia's portentous dream into a “vision fair and fortunate” in which Caesar is a life-giving deity to Rome (II.ii.83-90). Approving the interpretation of Decius because it flatters him, Caesar reverses himself, shuns Calphurnia, and becomes trapped in Decius' net of flattery. Once again the mockery of love has won out. Decius' clever reasoning about Caesar has proved correct; nonetheless, Decius calls it love:

Pardon me, Caesar; for my dear love
To your proceeding bids me tell you this,
And reason to my love is liable.


We should begin to see how important it is that we not accept the word “love” in its conventional sense. Here, as a matter of fact, we know that we must reverse Decius' terms: whatever love Decius may once have had for Caesar, that love is now “liable” to Decius' own ego.

The dramatic image which underscores this causality—that base flattery creates a Colossus—occurs just before the assassination. The conspirators may “stand up against the spirit of Caesar,” but they fall down before the man. In their importunities to Caesar to revoke Publius' banishment, the murderers do not offer Caesar any “cause”7 why he should repeal Publius' sentence. Instead, they rely entirely on obsequiousness and servile flatteries. Metellus kneels (III.i.35 s.d.) and begins the sequence of adulation and fawning: “Most high, most mighty, and most puissant Caesar” (III.i.33). Caesar stops him and describes for us—even if Caesar does not grant the effect on himself—what we should see:

These couchings and these lowly courtesies
Might fire the blood of ordinary men,
And turn pre-ordinance and first decree
Into the law of children.


Although Caesar's reference to “decree” is to the banishment of Publius, we should see his speech in a larger context. Caesar is an ordinary man, full of frailties and defects, deafness and sickness—just as are all men in this world. But the “couchings” and “lowly courtesies,” the “ceremonies,” “fire the blood of ordinary men,” make them “soar,” and thus the “preordinance and first decree” of creation, the eternal law that binds men to their place in the universal hierarchy, is degraded and mocked as if it were only imagined.

Shakespeare makes Caesar's ego grow before us in response to the sequence of flatteries. First Metellus works, and Caesar's ego stirs. Then the noble Brutus falls to his knees8 and adds his own touch of servility, begging the question of his flattery as he does so: “I kiss thy hand, but not in flattery, Caesar” (III.i.52). Finally, in a climactic action that refutes all of Cassius' proclaimed disgust for flattery, Cassius throws himself to the floor: “Pardon, Caesar; Caesar, pardon: / As low as to thy foot doth Cassius fall, / To beg enfranchisement for Publius Cimber” (III.i.55-57). Prone at the feet of Caesar like a slave, Cassius uses the word “enfranchisement,” a remarkably ambivalent word that gathers in both bondage and bond of duty. It can mean either liberation from slavery or release from legal responsibilities (Casca shouts “Enfranchisement!” after the assassination, III.i.81). Shakespeare has made it visually clear that Cassius' “bondage” is his own doing; the conspirators have generated their own tyrant. Caesar shows unequivocal signs of an enormous ego only after Metellus has gone to his knees, Brutus has joined him and kissed Caesar's hand, and Cassius has fallen to the floor abjectly begging.

“Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed?” Upon the meat that so-called noblemen willingly, eagerly, provide him—their own self-debased bodies. In contrast to the lowly positions of the conspirators—and from their point of view only—Caesar is indeed as high as a “Colossus,” but only so long, to use Cassius' words in a new light, as “petty men / Walk under his huge legs” (I.iii.134-35). Antony's later description of this scene, a description that infuriates Cassius, is entirely accurate:

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. O you flatterers!

(V.i.41-44; my italics)

When men debase themselves to “pray” (III.i.59) to a man, the “man / Is now become a god” (I.ii.114-15), a false god, a perverse creation that mocks the Creator: the perverted product of men who first pervert themselves.

As outward sign and symbol of their inner perversion the noble Romans corrupt language and word-concepts: bond of duty becomes bondage, and flattery is called love, reflecting the inverted moral order of Rome. Corrupted men corrupt other men with corrupted language; no one escapes. All are eventually condemned by praise, and all are self-condemned by praising. No one does or says what he feels. Eventually, it is impossible to determine if he is even capable of honest human feeling. When Brutus condemns Caesar in contradiction to what he says he feels about Caesar (“yet I love him well,” I.ii.81), we might at first respond with sympathy for the man who puts the “general good” before his own feelings. But in the perspective of all the other distortions of feelings, how can we be certain that Brutus does not really hate Caesar? If Decius in truth despises Caesar when he says he loves him, if Cassius uses “love” as a way of flattering Brutus, if Brutus' love for Portia becomes the “love” of a feudal lord for his concubine, what are Brutus' professions of love for Caesar and concern for Rome really worth as counterweights to mitigate the cruelty he discharges?

And what are we to make of the term “noble”? Antony dismisses the idea that Cassius might be dangerous on the basis that “He is a noble Roman, and well given” (I.ii.193), but in fact Cassius' conception of his enslaved nobility is what provokes the plot. To enlist Brutus, Cassius alludes to “the breed of noble bloods” (I.ii.149) in an attempt to make Brutus perceive a similar debasement of his nobility:

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.


In reply, Brutus calls Cassius “my noble friend” (I.ii.169). But after Brutus has left, Cassius turns the word “noble” over in his mind on a barbed spit:

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.


Later, “likes” becomes a central term as Caesar invites the conspirators, just before the assassination, to have some wine with him “like friends.” Brutus then says in an aside, “That every like is not the same, O Caesar!” (II.ii.127-28).

Because men do not say what they really mean here, we simply cannot accept their flattering terms nor their self-adulating epithets. Men may appear at first noble, virtuous, and honorable, but Brutus, instructing the conspiracy, teaches us how we should view these noble-appearing assassins: “Let not our looks put on our purposes” (II.i.225). Similarly, we do not believe Brutus' flattering description of Antony when he tells Antony's servant, “Thy master is a wise and valiant Roman; / I never thought him worse” (III.i.138-39), because we have previously heard Brutus denigrate Antony as an inept and frivolous playboy, “given / To sports, to wildness, and much company” (II.i.188-89). Manifestly, Brutus, no less than any of these noble Romans, is a hypocrite.

Perhaps the sharpest insight into what “noble” really means in this world occurs when Brutus, angry at Cassius, pontificates on false appearance:

There are no tricks in plain and simple faith;
But hollow men, like horses hot at hand,
Make gallant show and promise of their mettle. …


We should recall that Brutus had made a “promise” to Rome to “redress” its grievances (II.i.56-58), but the promise of redress turns into a nightmare far worse than any wrongs Brutus had imagined in Caesar. Failing to keep his “promise” therefore, Brutus forces us to strip him of his “nobility” according to his own terms:

                                                                                every drop of blood
That every Roman bears, and nobly bears,
Is guilty of a several bastardy,
If he do break the smallest particle
Of any promise that hath pass'd from him.


Thus arises the necessity of deciphering language and appearances in Caesar; failure to do so will trap us in the same net that surrounds all of these spiritually deaf and blind men. We must not trust our ears; we cannot always trust our eyes. Only as the blood gushes across the stage and we feel a visceral repulsion are we in communication with the awful reality. “Noble”—as with “love”—is but the shadow of its former meaning, a ceremonial covering for moral disintegration. The word “noble” flies back and forth like a weaver's shuttle, but the pattern it finally creates is vicious and ugly. The plebians shout “There's not a nobler man in Rome than Antony” (III.ii.118) as Antony reshapes them into “dogs of war.” Antony, with more irony than he perceives, describes Caesar's body as “the ruins of the noblest man / That ever lived” (III.i.256-57). To Brutus, Cassius was “the last of all the Romans,” an inimitable pattern of nobility (V.iii.99-101). And as Antony, in the funeral oration, plays upon the disparity between Brutus' abstract profession of noble honor and the ravages of noble men bleeding on the ground before the crowd, “noble” dies an ignoble death. All of the noble Romans, the action makes clear, are but “ruins” of their former selves, “hollow men” making “gallant show and promise,” statues “deck'd with ceremonies” (I.i.65).9

An interesting analogue, quite possibly a source, exists for these references to noble Romans. The conspiracy began with Brutus' tracing his ancestry back to the Brutus who drove the “Tarquin” from Rome “when he was call'd a king” (II.i.54). Caesar, on the other hand, compares himself to “the northern star” (III.i.60). Both of these images were earlier evoked in one of Erasmus' satirical portraits of Stoic Wise Men who believe their wisdom, virtue, and nobility make them self-sufficient:

'tis scarcely credible how they flatter themselves with the empty title of nobility. One derives his pedigree from Aeneas, another from Brutus, a third from the star by the tail of Ursa Major. They show you on every side the statues and pictures of their ancestors; run over their great-grandfathers … when themselves yet are but once removed from a statue, if not worse than those trifles they boast of.10

As if Shakespeare were dramatizing Erasmus' men who are “but once removed from a statue,” his noble Romans prate of their nobility but are belied by their actions: the noble Cassius deceiving his best friend with forged letters, the noble Antony damning his own nephew, the noble and honest Brutus in one breath berating Cassius for taking bribe money yet demanding a share of the profits himself.

Is Shakespeare's vision of the Roman Republic wholly ironic? Have all honesty and goodness degenerated into sham words? Not entirely. Condemnation of the nobility seems to be all-inclusive, but there is a level of society which has not learned the art of flattery and the “craft” of politics, a part of the body politic in which the seeds of truth still lie fertile but uncultivated and the bond of duty to Rome's head is still instinctively intact—the multitude. For all of Shakespeare's supposed contempt for the mob,11 ordinary men in Caesar represent Shakespeare's moral touchstone. Unquestionably dull-witted, malleable, and potentially bestial, the populace nonetheless is the only group in the play that does not flatter Caesar; indeed, they are the only ones who respond to Caesar with honest, untutored, uncalculated reactions. Theirs is a raw honesty to be sure, but honesty just the same. What is more, their honesty has a powerful effect. The people had given unqualified praise to Caesar the soldier as he returned from his victory over Pompey—a fact which may or may not be to their credit. But when Caesar makes his move to become king, their reaction changes completely. Casca's narration of the scene contains a lesson for Brutus that he never realizes. Brutus had assumed that the shouts he heard indicated that “the people / Choose Caesar for their king,” and upon that assumption rests Brutus' argument for killing Caesar. But the shouts, Casca makes clear, were not for that at all. Let Casca recount the abortive coronation again:

at every putting-by mine honest neighbors shouted … as he refus'd the crown, 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. … If the tag-rag people did not clap him and hiss him, according as he pleas'd and displeas'd them, as they use to do the players in the theatre, I am no true man. … Caesar fell down, when he perceiv'd the common herd was glad he refus'd the crown.

(I.ii.226-27, 240-43, 255-58, 260-61; my italics)

Only if we allow Casca's snobbish epithets to distort our vision can we miss the point. The crowd may be dirty and unsophisticated, they may be a “herd” of stupid creatures, they may have been completely deceived by Caesar's theatrics, but they are “honest neighbors” who react viscerally to the threat of a dictator. Instead of flattering Caesar, they “clap him and hiss him, according as he pleas'd and displeas'd them.”

Most important, the populace's gut response is powerful enough to humble Caesar. Whether his falling is real or feigned is not the important issue (though one certainly deliberated endlessly by critics); the essential image we must see is that Caesar does fall before the people and does beg the people's forgiveness for abusing their love for him:

When he came to himself again, he said, if he had done or said anything amiss, he desir'd their worships to think it was his infirmity.


We should realize that the only time in the play when Caesar's “spirit” is restrained without shedding his blood is at this moment. Caesar's humiliation was accomplished by the simple act of people voicing their displeasures. In this light, perhaps the most ironic statement in the play occurs when Casca, the man who is the first to flatter Caesar (I.ii.1) and the first to stab him, ends his tale:

Three or four wenches, where I stood, cried, ‘Alas, good soul,’ and forgave him with all their hearts; but there's no heed to be taken of them.


The “basest mettle” of Rome—the people—can be “mov'd” (I.i.62), and, when moved, can speak its voice instinctively and loudly. When Octavius' bondman enters to speak to Antony, he cannot restrain his feelings at the sight of the slain Caesar: “O Caesar!” he cries. Antony comments, “Thy heart is big; get thee apart and weep” (III.i.281-82). Caesar is thus checked, forgiven, and mourned by the “hearts” of Rome's basest level of society. Unwilling to approve Caesar's total usurpation of power, the people nonetheless can praise him, admonish him, forgive him, and weep for him—all because they have an unvarnished love for him. And, as the events of the play emphasize—particularly the riots of Act III—the people have a need for him. A system of checks and balances exists between the people and Caesar, a bond that is nourished and maintained by mutual obligation. The people are not self-sufficient without a Caesar, and Caesar is not self-sufficient without the people. Together they form a substantial community, a union of body-politic and guiding head. If the head tries to transcend the body, it is shouted down.

We have here an exact dramatic image of social contract, a political theory rapidly gaining acceptance in the late sixteenth century. Richard Hooker had written that there are two foundations of society: the natural impulse in man to live in society, and

an order expressly or secretly agreed upon, touching the manner of their union in living together. The latter is that which we call the law of a common weal, the very soul of a politic body, the parts whereof are by law animated, held together, and set on work in such actions as the common good requireth.

Civil government, Hooker goes on to say, rests upon public consent, “without which consent there were no reason that one man should take upon him to be lord or judge over another”—a thought we should apply to both Caesar and Brutus. Hooker emphasizes that government is necessary; because men are not self-sufficient as individuals, they “are naturally induced to seek communion and fellowship with others.”12 But Hooker also stresses that there are hierarchical “parts” to any social unit. For a community to attain its purpose—the maintenance of the “common good”—the common body must have a common authority, its head. Only when there is mutual and dynamic interchange between the parts, when they are “held together,” does the organism function for that common good. When the bond is intact, when the “soul of the politic body” is not ruptured, the community flourishes.

Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is in large part a dramatization of the same political theory that Hooker rehearses in prose. Yet Shakespeare's play plumbs greater depths than Hooker's treatise. In Julius Caesar, bonds of community are posited and broken at many levels: the bond of a husband and wife, the bond of friendship, the bond of servant and master, the bond of an entire state. As a gruesome parody of healthy bonds, the conspirators form a false bond. True bonds thrive on love between men; perfidious bonds—that degenerate into bondage—feed on the meat of other men, a self-defeating, self-destroying cohesion that chokes all human feeling and inevitably creates false gods to whom men are enslaved and against whom they are compelled to strike. But when they strike at the false god—only the illusion of their corrupted vision—they kill a man:

O, that we then could come by Caesar's spirit,
And not dismember Caesar! But, alas,
Caesar must bleed for it.


As they “cut the head off” (II.i.163), a chain of laws is broken: the human, positive law that unites men in society under a common authority and the eternal law that forbids homicide.

Yet all of this at the political-social level of the play posits another law that men in Rome have violated: the natural law that binds men as men. Shakespeare goes beyond Hooker to probe the true cause of social perversion and political disharmony. Seeing past the warring social order into its analogue, the human soul, Shakespeare argues that outward, political perversion is but a symptom of inner perversion in men.

I have examined Caesar at the political level. Much of the play, however, explores not the politic soul and body but the human soul and body. There Shakespeare finds the corrupted source of the disease spreading through Roman civilization, another less obvious bond that has been ruptured, another dualistic yet unified organism that has degenerated from an authority and willing servant into a tyrant and a bondslave. To explore that sickness in the soul of man, Shakespeare chose as his symbolic character a Stoic. No other kind of man was so apt to enslave one half of his being. The Stoics conceived the nature of man to be, in the state of perfected virtue, a disembodied mind. Addressing the Stoics in De Finibus (a work dedicated to Brutus), Cicero asks, “By what means or at what point did you suddenly discard the body, and all those things which are in accordance with nature … ?” (IV.xi). It is a question we must also ask of Brutus. But that is matter for another discussion.


  1. All citations from Julius Caesar are from the New Arden Shakespeare edition, ed. T. S. Dorsch (Cambridge, Mass., 1955).

  2. Shakespeare used the concept of “bond of duty” elsewhere; see Henry VIII (III.ii), King Lear (I.i).

  3. Suggestions of an alchemical change of base metal into fire to achieve a new composition run throughout the play. There is also an indication that in selecting Brutus to head the conspiracy, Cassius is electing the homo frugi, the alchemical “philosopher.” Cf. Jonson's The Alchemist, II.ii.97-99:

    Why, I have heard, [the alchemist] must be homo frugi,
    A pious, holy, and religious man,
    One free from mortal sin, a very virgin.

    Jonson's alchemist, of course, is a sophisticated con-man.

  4. The Stoic viewed himself as a citizen of the world and rejected any more specific allegiance; see Tusculan Disputations, V.xxxviii. This attitude carried with it the unwillingness to be bound by oaths. See also Epictetus, The Manual, “Refuse to take oaths …” (33).

  5. Brutus' use of the word “faction” (II.i.77) is also highly suggestive. The term always connotes “unscrupulous methods” (OED) and therefore gives the lie to his pretensions of “honesty to honesty engag'd.” “Faction” also implies a divisive element—the breaking of a bond.

  6. For an important summary of Brutus' assertion of his “will,” see Gordon R. Smith, “Brutus, Virtue, and Will,” SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly] 10 (1959), 367-79.

  7. It is noteworthy that Caesar shows no signs of repealing Publius' banishment: “nor without cause / Will he be satisfied” (III.i.47-48), he says. We have no way of knowing whether Caesar's refusal is remorseless or not, because the reason for Publius' banishment is never revealed. The mention of a “cause” even suggests that Caesar is willing to listen to any good reason to repeal the sentence.

  8. That Brutus is on his knees is indicated by l. 75.

  9. There are eight references to statues or stones in addition to Brutus' reference to “hollow men”: I.i.35, 68; I.ii.134, 283; I.iii.146; II.ii.76; III.ii.51, 144, 232.

  10. The Praise of Folly, trans. John Wilson (1688) (Ann Arbor, 1958), pp. 70-71.

  11. See, for example, Brents Stirling, Shakespeare's Populace (New York, 1953).

  12. Richard Hooker, Of the Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie (1594) (STC 13712), 1, 10.

Further Reading

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Barton, Anne. “Julius Caesar and Coriolanus: Shakespeare's Roman World of Words.” In Shakespeare's Craft: Eight Lectures, edited by Philip H. Hughfill, Jr., pp. 24-47. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982.

Centers on the manipulative techniques of rhetoric, oratory, and persuasion depicted in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus.

Blits, Jan H. “Manliness and Friendship in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.” In The End of the Ancient Republic: Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, pp. 3-20. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1993.

Studies the manly virtues and masculine relationships that inform Shakespeare's portrayal of Rome in Julius Caesar.

Coles, Blanche. Shakespeare Studies: Julius Caesar. New York: Richard R. Smith, 1940, 281 p.

Offers a scene-by-scene analysis of plot, character, and theme in Julius Caesar.

Daniell, David, ed. Introduction to The Arden Shakespeare: Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare, pp. 1-147. Walton-on-Thames, UK: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1998.

Provides an overview of Julius Caesar.

Dean, Leonard F., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Julius Caesar: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prenctice-Hall, 1968, 120 p.

Contains nineteen essays by noteworthy twentieth-century Shakespearean scholars examining such subjects as the language, structure, characters, genre, and thematic content of Julius Caesar.

Gerenday, Lynn de. “Play, Ritualization, and Ambivalence in Julius Caesar.Literature and Psychology 24, no. 1 (1974): 24-33.

Psychoanalytic study of Julius Caesar that concentrates on the tragedy of Brutus's failed attempt to overcome his internalized ambivalence.

Miles, Gary B. “How Roman Are Shakespeare's ‘Romans?’” Shakespeare Quarterly 40, no. 3 (autumn 1989): 257-83.

Examines Shakespeare's dramatization of the historical figures of Julius Caesar.

Spotswood, Jerald M. “‘We are undone already’: Disarming the Multitude in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus.Texas Studies in Literature and Language 42, no. 1 (spring 2000): 61-78.

Maintains that Shakespeare used commoners in such political plays as Julius Caesar and Coriolanus merely to reflect the actions of elite individuals, rather than to give the masses a clearly articulated voice or perspective of their own.

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

Discusses Shakespeare's depiction of early Imperial Rome in Julius Caesar as well as the relationship of the play to its source material, particularly Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans.

Toole, William B. “The Metaphor of Alchemy in Julius Caesar.Costerus: Essays in English and American Language and Literature 5 (1972): 135-51.

Explores alchemical allusions and metaphors in Julius Caesar.

Wilders, John. “Introduction to Julius Caesar.” In The BBC TV Shakespeare: Julius Caesar, pp. 10-18. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1979.

Describes Julius Caesar as “a brilliantly constructed political thriller” with powerful resonance in the modern world.

Normand Berlin (review date fall 2003)

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SOURCE: Berlin, Normand. Review of Julius Caesar.Massachusetts Review 44, no. 3 (fall 2003): 531ff.

[In the following excerpted review of Laird Williamson's 2003 Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Julius Caesar, Berlin compliments Williamson's intriguing interpretation of the play, which emphasized Caesar's tyrannical nature and the irresistible power of fate.]

[I]n the OSF [Oregon Shakespeare Festival] production of Julius Caesar, performed in the indoor Angus Bowmer Theatre, … director Laird Williamson … [places] his Roman play in modern times without specifically designating a fixed time. That is, he gives us costumes that include World War I uniforms and coats, World War II Gestapo raincoats, American Green Beret uniforms, Clockwork Orange masks and garb, Marlene Dietrich stockings and garters, and miscellaneous rag outfits usually associated with the homeless. In stage center we find a removable wall made of scrap metal that was once armor, guns, swords, knives. The music that greets us in the play's beginning and that we hear at selected moments throughout the play is ominous and discordant. The stage throughout is filled with shadows, patches of darkness. Williamson said that he was looking for a film noir effect, and he achieves it. That he offers as the epigraph to his program notes a quote from Brecht points us to the kind of “modern” world he is positing. For him, as for Shakespeare, what we have in Julius Caesar are scenes that will be replayed in every generation: “How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted over / In states unborn, and accents yet unknown.” But the scene in the OSF production is not “lofty.” We are thrust into a modern dog-eat-dog world filled with suspicion and ominous forebodings, where political power corrupts, where war and destruction seem inevitable despite the “honorable” intentions of some supposedly good men, where chaos and discord finally triumph. Cleverly, Williamson gives Shakespeare's soothsayer an added persona, that of Ate, the Greek goddess of discord, played by a thin, screeching, frenetic, white-faced Christine Williams, who seems to have stepped out of a decadent Weimar cabaret, and whose unheeded prophetic warnings (the soothsayer part) eventually lead to the bloodshed and violence which allow her to thrive (the Ate part). Shakespeare's confluence of character and fate is nicely realized in this interesting directorial addition.

Williamson posits a Julius Caesar who is clearly a tyrant. Even before the play begins we are staring at a huge photo of Caesar's face, obviously modeled on the familiar Lenin or Mao portraits. He is the “top dog” that Brecht refers to in a ditty quoted by Williamson in his notes: “Remember Julius Caesar's fame / Recall his destiny. / Of all the dogs top dog was he. … / But his best friends did him in thoroughly. / And all because top dog was he.” Caesar, as played by William Langan (OSF's Titus), has no redeeming qualities. Haughty, supercilious, unbending, cold, he seems to deserve the animosity of his fellow Romans. This, of course, is always the important decision for a director of Julius Caesar—is Caesar a tyrant deservedly butchered, or is he a great leader, bringing order and stability to the Roman republic, envied and killed by lesser men? Shakespeare doesn't give us the answer; in fact, he plays with us, so that at times we favor the conspirators, at times we sympathize with Caesar. I would even suggest that he calculatingly is forcing us into the position of the mob—changing our minds, our positions, prodding us to recognize our own fickleness. We literally become the mob in this production when, at various times, Williamson has some of his actors station themselves in the audience. Williamson has not given us any opportunity to get close to Caesar, not even at the moment of his assassination. Langan, dressed in a white robe, is stabbed in front of a fountain of blood. The many stabbings drench the white robe red, and then, receiving the final thrust by Brutus he utters the words we all know, “Et tu, Brute?—Then fall Caesar!” This is the moment of greatest disappointment for Caesar. Here, even if nowhere else, something should be tugging at us, a touch of genuine human disappointment. Langan says the words rather neutrally, and then tries to attack Brutus in a gesture of self defense. This was a directorial decision that diminishes the moment, I believe, but it does conform to Williamson's larger attitude toward the play. In general, he seems to be flattening Shakespeare's characters, concentrating instead on the atmosphere of intrigue and doom, pointing to the inevitable triumph of Ate, who accompanies the Ghost of Caesar when he visits Brutus in the tent scene. It is Ate, in white lingerie, gartered like Marlene Dietrich, exuding a decadent German aroma, who appears on the battlefield in the play's last act, busily collecting the dogtags of slain soldiers (dogs again?), relishing the chaos she seemed to be anticipating throughout the play.

Julius Caesar, containing many public scenes, is written in what could be called a rhetorical style, making it a rather cool play. The OSF actors, usually with success, dampen down the rhetoric in their deliveries. Particularly effective, for example, was Antony's famous speech at the forum. Williamson sets it up in such a way that we feel we are listening to a funeral sermon in a chapel. Calpurnia, in mourning black, seated next to the coffin containing her husband, is stonily staring directly at the audience while Antony, played by Dan Donohue, delivers the speech feelingly, haltingly at times, genuinely grieving at the loss of a friend. He precisely fingers the tears in the blood-stained white garment that Caesar wore, pinpointing which conspirators made the stabs. Only toward the end of the speech does he become ominous, manipulating the crowd toward mischief, becoming, like all the other characters, a political animal, a contender for top dog. The bodyguards surrounding him wear leather jackets with the picture of Antony on the back, and we are forced to recall the portrait of the dictator Caesar who was staring at us in the play's beginning. It goes on, we see, and all the goings-on lead to the predicted discord of the goddess Ate.

The direct result of Antony's speech is havoc, powerfully captured in this production in the Cinna the Poet scene. The innocent man—a poet, not the conspirator of the same name—is brutally assaulted by men in Clockwork Orange outfits, wearing masks, and wielding clubs. In this scene of pure destructive cruelty Williamson draws on our knowledge of the movie, just as in the general atmosphere of intrigue he draws on our experience of film noir.

Although Brutus is considered to be the play's tragic hero he doesn't possess the kind of charisma that we associate with Hamlet or Othello or Macbeth. Usually he is competing for audience attention with Cassius and Antony and even Caesar, so that in any particular production much depends on the special qualities of the actor. (For example, Gielgud and Brando, as Cassius and Antony, overshadowed the very capable, intelligent performance of James Mason in the Mankiewicz movie.) In the OSF production, Brutus is played by Derrick Lee Weeden, whose largeness of body and dangerous presence filled the stage when he played Aaron the Moor in Titus. As Brutus, he is usually acted upon, seems to be hiding his strength, underplaying, until the battlefield scenes where his Green Beret uniform and his military bearing allow him to display his height, in fact, allow him to project the very arrogance that we associated with Caesar. His uncharacteristic anger at Cassius in the tent scene erupts into a physical threat, at which point Cassius—and this is Shakespeare's point—sees himself as the victim of another Caesar. Cassius, as played by Mark Murphey (who has been with OSF for twenty seasons!), projects throughout the hard edge of a clever intellectual politician, but in the warmer tent scene he emerges as a vulnerable man. An effective piece of theater, with both actors allowing the personal to break through this very public play.

This Julius Caesar was vibrant, often exciting theater, respectful of Shakespeare's words, placing them in a dark, doom-laden modern context that speaks directly to us.

Richard Wilson (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Wilson, Richard, ed. “‘Is This a Holiday?’: Shakespeare's Roman Carnival.” In New Casebooks: Julius Caesar, pp. 55-76. Houndsmills, UK: Palgrave, 2002.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1993, Wilson examines the carnivalesque elements of Julius Caesar.]

Julius Caesar was the first Shakespearean play we know to have been acted at the Globe, and was perhaps performed for the opening of the new Bankside theatre in 1599. The Swiss tourist Thomas Platter saw it on 21 September, and his impressions help to locate the work within the different cultural practices that went to make the Elizabethan playhouse. To our minds, accustomed to a decorous image of both Shakespeare and ancient Rome, it is just this collision of codes and voices which makes the traveller's report so incongruous and jarring:

After lunch, at about two o'clock, I and my party crossed the river, and there in the house with the thatched roof we saw an excellent performance of the tragedy of the first emperor, Julius Caesar, with about fifteen characters; and after the play, according to their custom, they did a most elegant and curious dance, two dressed in men's clothes and two in women's.1

Along with chimney-pots, feather hats, bound books and chiming clocks in the play itself, we can absorb the cultural shock of the ‘house with the thatched roof’, but the elegant jig of Caesar and the boy dressed as Caesar's wife is too alienating a mixture for us of what Duke Theseus calls the ‘merry and tragical’ (A Midsummer Night's Dream, V.i.58). Even the Swiss visitor thought it a curious local custom, and he was lucky to see it, because by 1612 ‘all Jigs, Rhymes and Dances after Plays’ had been ‘utterly abolished’ to prevent the ‘tumults and outrages whereby His Majesty's peace is often broke’, alleged to be caused by the ‘cutpurses and other lewd and ill-disposed persons’ who were attracted by them into the auditorium in droves at the end of each performance.2 Platter was an observer of a theatre already in the process of expelling gatecrashers and purging itself of the popular customs that had given them entry and legitimated their unwelcome presence. He was witnessing what Francis Barker has described as the first seeds of naturalism inside the Elizabethan theatre, and the English inauguration of a new kind of controlled drama, where clowns would learn to ‘speak no more than is set down for them’, and laughter, as Hamlet prescribes, would be made strictly conditional on the ‘necessary question of the play’. Authority in this theatre would come to be concentrated in what the Prince of Denmark proprietorially tells the Players are ‘my lines’ (Hamlet, III.ii.1-45), and the mastery of the author as producer would be founded on the suppression of just those popular practices that Platter thought so picturesque: the unwritten scenario of the mummers' dance, the transvestite mockery of the ‘shemale’, Dick Tarlton's ‘villainous’ impromptu gags and, at the close, the raucous collective belch of disrespect for ‘His Majesty's Peace’. Elite and demotic traditions coexist in embarrassed tension in Platter's travel diary, where the excellence of the classical tragedy consorts so oddly with the rumbustiousness of the antic hay. The traveller did not realise, of course, that the sequence he recorded represented the point of scission between two cultures and for one of them the literal ‘final fling’, nor that ‘the house with the thatched roof’ was the scene, even as he applauded the performance, of bitter social separation.3

The opening words of Julius Caesar seem to know themselves, nevertheless, as a conscious declaration of company policy towards the Elizabethan theatre public. They are addressed by the Roman Tribune Flavius to ‘certain commoners’ who have entered ‘over the stage’, and they are a rebuke to their temerity: ‘Hence! home, you idle creatures, get you home, / Is this a holiday?’ Dressed in their Sunday ‘best apparel’, these ‘mechanical’ men have mistaken the occasion for a ‘holiday’, and to the rhetorical question ‘Is this a holiday?’ they are now given the firm answer that for them, at least, it is an ordinary ‘labouring day’ (I.i.1-60). This is an encounter, then, that situates what follows explicitly within the contemporary debate about the value or ‘idleness’ of popular culture, a debate in which, as Christopher Hill has written, ‘two modes of life, with their different needs and standards, are in conflict as England moves out of the agricultural middle ages into the modern industrial world’.4 And as Flavius and his colleague Marullus order the plebeians back to work, it is a confrontation that confirms Hill's thesis that the Puritan attack on popular festivity was a strategy to control the emerging manufacturing workforce. The Tribunes oppose ‘holiday’ because it blurs the distinctions between labour and reward, and between the deserving poor and the shiftless work-shy, just as their counterparts among the London Aldermen complained the playhouses lured ‘the prentices and servants of the City from their works’. In fact, the Tribunes' speeches echo The Anatomy of Abuses (1583) by the Puritan zealot and merchants' censor, Philip Stubbes, and in doing so the actors of the Globe were disarming one of the most powerful, because pragmatic, objections to their trade. As Thomas Nashe protested when the first playhouse was reopened on the South Bank in 1592, professional players were not to be confused with the ‘pantaloon’ and ‘courtezans’ of the street. Actors provided a distraction for the courtier or lawyer, who ‘if there be never a play for him to go to … sits melancholy in his chamber, devising upon felony and treason’; but the citizens could rest assured that ‘they heartily wish they might be troubled with none of their youth nor their prentices’. So theatre-owners such as Philip Henslowe were careful to obey the ban on ‘interludes and plays on the Sabbath’, closing their doors on city workers (as James I complained) on the one afternoon when they were officially free. If working men were present to hear the beginning of Julius Caesar and stayed despite it, the implication was clear that they had no business to be there. Theatre, they could infer, was now itself a legitimate business with no room for the ‘idle’.5

The first words uttered on the stage of the Globe can be interpreted, then, as a manoeuvre in the campaign to legitimise the Shakespearean stage and dissociate it from the subversiveness of London's artisanal subculture. As historians such as Peter Burke have demonstrated, revelry and rebellion were entangled in Renaissance popular entertainments, and it was no coincidence that insurrections such as the Peasants' Revolts of 1381 and 1450, the Evil May Day riot of 1517, or Kett's Rebellion of 1549 should have been sparked off at seasonal plays or have had vivid carnivalesque scenarios. The juridical function of folk drama had been to cement the social ties and obligations of an agrarian community, and when these were threatened in the transition to capitalist economic relations, it was through the ‘rough music’ of folk customs—charivaris, mummings, mocking rhymes and wakes—that the new masters were called to ritual account. The ‘reversible world’ of carnival, with its travesty and inversion, was a standing pretext for protest; but if, as happened increasingly in early modern Europe, rulers chose to ignore the ‘wild justice’ of festivity, there could be what Burke calls a sudden ‘switching of codes, from the language of ritual to the language of rebellion’, when ‘the wine barrel blew its top’.6 This is what happened spectacularly in the bloody Carnival at Romans in 1580, and it was also what occurred less explosively in London during the crisis years of the 1590s, when hunger and unemployment drove ‘disorderly people of the common sort’ (in the Aldermanic phrase) ‘to assemble themselves and make matches for their lewd ungodly practices’ at Shrovetide, May Day or Midsummer: festivals when, like the workers in Julius Caesar, they could still ‘cull out a holiday’ from the industrial working week. Associating all revels with rebellion, the City Fathers were instinctively sure that riotous ‘apprentices and servants drew their infection’ from the playhouses where people caught the plague; but, as Nashe insisted, this analogy was a kind of category mistake, which miscalculated the new theatre's ideological function. If the playhouse was, as coroners reported, the site of ‘frays and bloodshed’, it was as the target, rather than the source, of violence, as when apprentices traditionally rampaged on Shrove Tuesday to ‘put play houses to the sack and bawdy houses to the spoil’ (in 1617 wrecking the Cockpit Theatre, with the loss of several lives). The rough music of charivari was hollered in anger from outside the playhouse walls.7

‘The disorders of the 1590s were the most serious to menace the metropolis in the decades leading up to the Civil War’, writes the urban historian Peter Clark, and what concerns him is how this unprecedented metropolitan crisis was contained.8 The answer must lie at least partly in the success with which the language of carnival as a discourse of legitimation was requisitioned by the commercial players and then tamed. For as scenes like the opening of Julius Caesar remind us, and as history, in Foucault's words, ‘constantly teaches us, discourse is not simply that which translates struggles or systems of domination, but is the thing for which struggle takes place’.9 It was no mere evasion of authority, therefore, which led the players to situate their theatres on the southern bank of the Thames, where Platter and his party rowed to unbrace and recreate themselves after lunch. In the complex zoning of the metropolis that dates precisely from this time, Southwark was to occupy the position of a policed and segregated annex to the business and residential quarters on the river's northern side. Within its archaic Liberties, the Bankside was to have the status of a permanent but circumscribed carnival in the city's libidinous economy, a disposal valve in its regulation of productivity and waste. Suspect and sinistral, until the final suppression of Hogarth's Southwark Fair in 1762, the South Bank was to function as the unconscious of the capital of Trade. Nor, in this topography of desire, was it accidental that the Globe was built on ground vacated by the monasteries beside those very institutions that, in Foucault's analysis, shaped the discourses of modern subjectivity. Ringed not only by brothels, but by reconstructed prisons such as the Marshalsea and the Clink, and flanked by newly refounded hospitals such as St Thomas's, the playhouse meshed with a chain of buildings charged with those dividing practices whereby the productive subject was defined by separation from its negative in the sick, the mad, the aged, the criminal, the bankrupt, the sexually delinquent, the indigent and the unemployed: isolated, as Flavius urges and the 1569 Charter of St Thomas's decreed, from ‘all Idle, Begging people’.10 The wooden operating theatre of St Thomas's survives today as the celebrated arena where the early modern body was cut into its diseased and healthy parts. The ‘wooden O’ of the Globe next door, which must have resembled it in design so much, operated in analogous ways on the body politic to divide and section the visceral language of carnival, severing productive revelry (or art) from the idleness and infection of rebellion.

‘Run to your houses, fall upon your knees. / Pray to the gods to intermit the plague. … Draw them to Tiber banks, and weep your tears / Into the channel’ (I.i.53-9): the command of the City Fathers to the commons to pray for deliverance from plague is too close to the rhetoric of the Aldermen and the topography of the Bankside to be accidental, and is clearly a signal at the inauguration of the house of the earnestness with which the management takes the anxieties of its opponents. For if Thomas Platter was a naïve theatre critic, as a sociologist he was shrewder when he reported that ‘England is the servants' prison, because their masters and mistresses are so severe.’ The foreign observer could see what has been confirmed in detail by Lee Beier in his study of masterless men and the vagrancy problem in Shakespearean society, that the public order system which Foucault dated from the foundation of the Paris General Hospital in 1656, was in fact already established in London by 1599.11 It was a system based, however, less on the crude severity and interdiction of the Tribunes than on the strategy of self-regimentation and surveillance which Brutus proposes as a model for his politics, when he argues for a controlled and strictly rational rebellion:

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.


The Shakespearean text belongs to a historical moment when a revolutionary bourgeois politics has not yet naturalised its own repressive procedures, and Brutus's Machiavellian realpolitik is a complete statement of the technique of the modern state whereby subversion is produced in both consciousness and society to legitimise the order that subjects it. Unruly passions and apprentices are both checked by a regime that contrives to ‘Stir up the … youth to merriments’ the better to invigilate it (A Midsummer Night's Dream, I.i.12); as Hal also demonstrates in his career as agent provocateur in Eastcheap. This is a system of discipline whose subtlety, as Brutus recognises, depends not on how it obstructs, but on how it generates desire, so that sexual transgression, for example, will no longer be so much the forbidden, as the very ground through which power manipulates the individual and the community. And it is just this ‘subtle, calculated technology of subjection’, as analysed by Foucault, operating through the new factories, schools, almshouses and hospitals of Elizabethan London, which surely explains why Bakhtin says so little in his work about either Shakespearean drama or English culture. His theories were most strenuously applied to Elizabethan theatre by Michael Bristol in his attempt to trace the ‘carnivalisation’ of Shakespearean literature from ‘below’; but the argument was not convincing because, as Umberto Eco has remarked, what Bakhtinians crucially forget in their idealisation of the people's carnival is not just the suffering of the Jews and other scapegoats pelted by the revellers, but the revenge of Lent: the confinement, that is to say, of desire within the dialectic of subversion and containment. If carnival were always so emancipatory, Eco adds, ‘it would be impossible to explain why power uses circuses’. For, as Nashe boasted, ‘any politician’ understood the truth of what the actor told the emperor: ‘It is good for thee, O Caesar, that the people's heads are troubled about us and our light matters; for otherwise they would look into thee and thy matters.’12

When the Privy Council had endorsed the Aldermen's petition in 1597 for the ‘final suppression of stage plays’, the actors had lodged their ‘only suit’—for royal incorporation—through the mouth of Jacques: ‘I must have liberty, / Withal, as large a charter as the wind, / To blow on whom I please, for so fools have.’ The satirist is ‘ambitious for a motley coat’ to license him to ‘Cleanse the foul body’ of the ‘infected’ City with laughter; but the appeal for a royal livery exposes the ambivalence of Elizabethan theatre, a ‘medicine’ for contagion, as the Duke retorts, which might prove worse than the disease (As You Like It, II.vii.43-69). This is, of course, the dualism on which all Western culture pivots, in Derrida's thesis, where opposites are locked in a double-bind such as Plato's analogous prescription for social ills of the pharmakon: the poison that cures. And the awareness that theatre occupies the marginal position in the social body of the pharmakos or scapegoat, in a place where, as the Friar warns the delinquent Romeo, ‘Poison hath residence, and medicine power’, because ‘Two opposed kings encamp them’ there (Romeo and Juliet, II.iii.10-14), explains the ambiguity of its status in Western morality since ancient Greece, teetering, the watch committees charge, between liberty and libertinism, or licentiousness and licence. For, as Stephen Mullaney observes of Shakespeare's Bankside, the contradictions of a licensed liberty are not merely semantic:

Like the word, licensing is ambidextrous. A licence is a token of the agent who grants it, and an emblem of authority. Once issued, however, a licence leaves the control as well as the hands of the licensing agent. With a licence one can take liberties; issuing a licence is an assertion of authority and a declaration of its limits.13

It is the irreducible ambiguity of ‘liberty’ that accounts, then, for critical debate over Renaissance carnival, and which shapes the scenario when Shakespearean characters proclaim ‘Freedom, high-day! High-day, freedom!’ (The Tempest, II.ii.182). And in Julius Caesar it is a dialectic the Romans experience to their cost, when the freedom they release cancels the liberty they license.

In Shakespearean culture it is understood that ‘There is no slander in an allowed fool’ (Twelfth Night, I.v.88); but the limits of that freedom are quickly tested in Julius Caesar when the Tribunes deny the right of Caesar to license the Cobblers' fooling: ‘Wherefore rejoice? What conquest brings he home?’ (I.i.32-3). If this shoemaker's obscene ‘cobblers’ is deconstructive ‘language on holiday’, as Wittgenstein termed all figurative equivocation,14 its inversion of civic decorum is subject to sharp correction. An instant lesson of Shakespearean tragedy, then, is that in a metropolis like Rome or London festive laughter is never unbridled or spontaneous. Like the cobbler-hero of the play produced in the same season as Julius Caesar by the rival Rose theatre, Thomas Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday, this ‘saucy fellow’ (I.i.18) thinks his belly-laughter is licensed by the powers that be, since ‘we make holiday to see Caesar’, he explains, ‘and to rejoice in his triumph’ (ll. 30-1). And in Dekker's wishful-thinking comedy the City gentleman is indeed seen off to the shoemakers' chant of ‘clubs for prentices!’, as Simon Eyre, who has risen by cobbling to be Lord Mayor, has ‘procured that upon every Shrove Tuesday, at the sound of the pancake bell, my fine dapper lads shall clap up their shop windows and away’ (The Shoemaker's Holiday, scene 17, 45-51).15 Dekker's cockney carnival is one that ‘affirms the roots of drama in holiday celebration and brings the community together’;16 and its morris-dancing craftsmen are free to make merry because the king himself indulges Eyre's laboured humour that he is ‘nobly born, being the sole son of a shoemaker’ (7. 46), and personally ensures that on pancake day His Madness is not ‘dashed clean out of countenance’ by reality (19. 12). For though Dekker ends his comedy with troops marching off from ‘sports and banqueting’ to war (21. 193), his vision of Merrie England is never darkened by political analysis. By a contrast that is surely calculated, Julius Caesar opens where The Shoemaker's Holiday closes, with the return of an army from a hollow victory, to dampen populist enthusiasm, and call in question what Dekker never queries: the motives of the licensing authorities who indulge the plebs with cakes and ale.

The material conditions of modern subjectivity are inscribed within the Shakespearean text. Thus, when Portia tries to persuade her husband Brutus to share ‘the secrets of [his] heart’ by divulging the details of the conspiracy against Caesar, which she diagnoses as some ‘sick offence within your mind’, she confronts him with a sociological map of the modern psyche: ‘Dwell I but in the suburbs / Of your good pleasure? If it be no more, / Portia is Brutus' harlot’ (II.i.268-306). ‘Let us suppose that Rome is not a human habitation, but a psychical entity’. Freud would likewise conjecture, adapting the humanist model of the city of the mind to the ‘unreal’ conurbations of modernity, which ‘love to hide under clean busy streets and elegant promenades, the subterranean canals in which the filth of sewers is drained away and where the whole sexual life of the young is supposed to take place invisibly, hidden from the moralistic surface of society’.17 Thus, pleasure, proletariat, prostitution and the pox are marginalised together through the bourgeois civilising process, which commences in a city such as London, as Stow's Survey begins, precisely at the moment when the ancient water-course is ‘vaulted over with brick, and paved level with the lanes and streets where through it passed, so that houses [are] built thereon, and the course is hidden underground and thereby hardly known’.18 Body, language and thought are all held in subjection by this civic order, where, if woman is man's treacherous other ‘half’, the householder disciplines his body by confining the female within a cordon sanitaire of guilty secrecy.19 Brutus's decision to confide in Portia may conform to the Puritan institution of companionate marriage as it was developing in Elizabethan London, then, but by succumbing to blackmail and allowing her indiscretion he destroys them both, as surely as if he had infected his wife with syphilis, by failing to quarantine desire in the ‘suburbs’ of the self, where it should have been confined, like the brothels (and theatres) of the Bankside.

In Julius Caesar, carnival, the symbolic economy of desire and the flesh, is a discourse that is always mastered by the dominant. Thus, the opening scenes take place on the Roman ‘feast of Lupercal’—when, as Brutus records, a slave dressed in wolfskin would be licensed to ‘revolt’ and afterwards killed—which took place on 14 February, St Valentine's Day and the approximate date of Mardi Gras. So, Shakespeare's revelling artisans connect directly with those ‘bands of prentices, 3000 or 4000 strong, who, on Shrove Tuesday do outrages in all directions, especially in the suburbs’, in contemporary accounts, and whose ‘Kingdoms’ and ‘Abbeys of Misrule’ have been researched, in their European contexts, by Natalie Zemon Davis.20 In the play their folk customs have been appropriated, however, by Caesar to legitimate his intended coronation. Antony therefore runs in the ‘holy chase’ to ‘touch’ Calphurnia for fertility alongside the city's young butchers (I.ii.7-8), while Caesar himself performs in the Shroving game by pretending to give ‘the rabblement’ the freedom that it shouts for. This would be the tactic of King James's Book of Sports (1618), of royalist propagandists such as Herrick, and ultimately of the Restoration, when (contrary to Bakhtin) the customs of ‘May-poles, Hock-carts, Wassails, Wakes’ would be harnessed to a programme of social conservatism. It belongs to the repertoire of what Hill calls synthetic monarchy: the invented tradition of Elizabeth's Accession Day or the Stuart cult of the Royal Touch as a cure for tuberculosis. And by this cooption of seasonal festivity Caesar turns politics into theatre as ‘the tag-rag people … clap and hiss him, according as he pleas'd and displeas'd them, as they use to do the players’ (I.ii.255). He is their Carnival King, a Lord of Misrule who governs by exploiting his subjects' desires with his ‘foolery’ (l. 232), manipulating ‘fat, / Sleek-headed men’ (l. 190), as he indulges Antony in plays and music when he ‘revels long a-nights’ (II.ii.116). Provoking them ‘to sports, to wildness, and much company’ (II.i.189), Caesar is the master of ceremonies who knows that ‘danger’ belongs only to the ‘lean and hungry’ who can discipline the body to their purposes (I.ii.193). So his Roman carnival becomes a model of authoritarian populism, the true regimen of bread and circuses.21

According to Anne Barton, the theatre image in Julius Caesar is uniquely positive and ‘the actors are no longer shadowy figures: they are the creators of history’.22 This may be true, but it oversimplifies the Saturnalian process that the play rehearses whereby discourses, which are the means of struggle, are themselves shaped by that struggle as it unfolds. It does so in Shakespearean Rome like carnival itself, as a masquerade in which successive ideologies which had seemed to be authoritative are ‘discovered’ and discarded as power is displaced. On Mardi Gras the aim is to see without being seen behind the carnival mask; and here too the eye of power strips the mask of rhetoric from its opponent, revealing—as Cassius demonstrates with his satirical pasquinades ‘wherein Caesar's ambition [is] glanced at’—the brutal drives that discursive practices hide. Thus, the plebeians who are masterless men in their holiday guise are exposed as Caesar's ‘idle creatures’ by the Tribunes' Puritan rhetoric, which is itself abruptly ‘put to silence’ when they ‘pull the scarfs’ from Caesar's statues (I.ii.282). That demystification will be completed by the knives of the aristocratic faction, whose mask of republicanism—with its common-law reverence for the ancestral constitution and contempt for the absolutist ‘yoke’ (l. 60; i.iii.84)—is worn ‘as our Roman actors do’ (II.i.226), until Antony seizes the stage in turn and reveals the carnivorous butchery their Lenten obsequies conceal. This is the radical potential of Shakespearean tragedy that Jonathan Dollimore and others would mobilise as a critical weapon: the revelry with which one discourse decodes the other, as Antony deconstructs the discursivity of the ‘honourable men’ (III.ii.120-230). With ‘their hats pluck'd about their ears, / And half their faces buried in their cloaks’ (II.i.73-4), or masked by handkerchiefs (II.i.315), the plotters who meet in ‘Pompey's theatre’ (I.iii.152) assume the anonymity of carnival and arrogate its dispensation to kill a scapegoat, just as the real conspirators of the Dutch Revolt had started their putsch against the Spanish governor at carnival in 1563, dressed in motley and jesters' caps and bells. In the Renaissance, as Stephen Greenblatt notes, ‘theatricality is one of power's essential modes’; so, when their antic disposition is ripped from these gamesmen, it is fittingly by the theatricality of a champion ‘masker and a reveller’ (V.i.62). ‘A masque is treason's licence’ in Jacobean drama, but the logic of this revelry will be to strip away the ‘veil'd look’ (I.ii.360) of ‘all true rites and ceremonies’ (III.i.241) to expose the naked will to power.23

The bloody Carnival at Romans in 1580 described by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie provides a paradigm of Renaissance festival as a ‘psychological drama or ballet’ whose players acted out class struggle through the ‘symbolic grammar’ of processions and masquerades. There the events ‘began as a popular revolution and ended as an Elizabethan tragedy in the bright colours of the Renaissance’, when the poor, led by their champion athlete, a ‘coarse and clownish’ craftsman known as Paumier (‘Handballer’), had mimed a mock funeral of the rich whose flesh they pretended to eat on Mardi Gras, until the law-and-order party had plotted a massacre in retaliation, arrayed for the ambush in the hoods and dominoes of a torchlit harlequinade. Every episode of this coup and counter-coup corresponded to a stage in the Shrovetide games, and the victims went to their deaths as if ‘stuck like pigs’ by fate.24 The Roman carnival in Julius Caesar follows a similar itinerary through the cannibalistic feast of Caesar's assassination and the mock trial of the conspirators at the funeral, to the revanchist repression of Lent. In Shakespearean Rome, as in the American South of the Ku Klux Klan, or the Britanny of the counter-Revolutionary Chouans, the regalia of flaming torch, hooded mask and noose is an ensemble whose social meaning will be dictated by the strongest. Likewise, poems, plays, letters, music, names, dreams, prophecies, clouds, stars and flights of birds are all discredited as ‘idle ceremonies’ in Julius Caesar (II.i.197), the random signifiers on which power enforces meaning. This is a deconstructive carnival that leads ineluctably to the burlesque textuality of Caesar's bloodstained ‘vesture’ as interpreted by Antony through its gaps and ‘wounded’ tears, and finally, when the corpse is divested of even that last tattered mask, to the revelation of Caesar's ‘will’: the testament which is also, by etymological extension with his ‘bleeding piece of earth’ (III.ii.130-60), the signifier of all desire.

At its core, Julius Caesar is a play about writing and reading, and its climactic scene is a Shakespearean version of that staple of bourgeois fiction, the discovery and announcement of the deceased's last will and testament. The will, historians demonstrate, was the legal mainstay of England's capitalist revolution and the textual means by which Tudor landowners tightened their grip on property and institutions. Shakespeare took the details of Caesar's will from Plutarch, but by transferring the scene of its reading from the Senate House to the Forum, spotlit its significance as the instrument of discursive power. By Elizabethan standards, however, what would be notable about Caesar's testament would be its charitable legacies, since there was a sharp decline in donation to the poor after the 1540 Act of Wills had entrenched family inheritance. Caesar is similar, then, to those heirless magnates who perpetuated pre-Reformation custom in Tudor London with bequests to charity; and Antony emphasises the anachronism with his prediction that if the Citizens heard the document read, ‘they would go and kiss dead Caesar's wounds, / And dip their napkins in his sacred blood, / Yea, beg a hair of him for memory’: like old-style Catholics (III.ii.133-5). Even in death this donor is a scandal to the city's Tribunes; but what matters, for Antony, is that his estate is distributed, rather than consolidated. Diffusion of Caesar's inheritance, an ever-widening circle of benefaction as property descends to his adopted heirs, provides a frame for his executor's dispersal of monological truth. Like the play-within-the-play or the mirror in Renaissance art, this will is a meta-textual key to the semantics of Julius Caesar: a representation of representation. Thus, Antony envisages Caesar's hairs scattered like some saint's, so everything once proper to the man will be diffracted; and the sacramental image is a metonym for the diaspora of language and intertextuality of writing as it circulates among the legatees, who ‘dying’, will ‘mention it in their wills, / Bequeathing it as a rich legacy, / Unto their issue’ (III.ii.136-8).

‘'Tis good you know not that you are his heirs’ (l. 147): beyond his authorial intention, (the bald) Caesar will have more heirs than hairs to leave them, and the linguistic legerdemain, which starts from Antony's wilful wordplay on the word ‘will’ itself (l. 126), is the ‘liberty, freedom and enfranchisement’ (III.i.81) from univocal meaning which is textual revolution. Such Derridean dissemination follows from Antony's erotics of writing, which are, as his wanton way with words suggests, literally a matter of will power. Caesar will engender the issue denied him in his sterile marriage and abortive reign by posthumously gratifying the Romans with his written testament, and Shakespeare's personal pun and signature releases the phallocentric implications inherent in the Western conception of writing. To make sense, in this authorial tradition, is to testify as a virile man; and the scene excites these connotations by repeating the word ‘will’ twenty-seven times in thirty lines, through all its libidinous referents of desire, intention and compulsion, as Antony stimulates the Crowd to merge its ‘will’ with Caesar's, until it cries orgasmically: ‘The will, the will! We will hear Caesar's will!’ (III.ii.140). Antony's effeminisation of the Romans thus startlingly prefigures the psychoanalytic hypothesis that would read the phallus as a transcendental signifier which invests all its substitutes, beginning with the pen, with meaning. As the incarnation of the libido dominandi, Caesar's ‘will’ represents his usurpation of the West's symbolic order, but being itself only a signifier it can no more be substantiated than his signature can finalise proof of intention. So the pleasure of this text is, quite literally, a kind of hermeneutic striptease, since after the chief mourner has tantalised the Plebeians into compliance that they ‘will compel’ him ‘to read the will’, and even promised to lift the final veil and ‘show you him that made the will’ (ll. 158-60), a climax is deferred with yet another text. Caesar's ‘vesture’, interpreted by Antony as an epic narrative, interposes itself between the people and their satisfaction, as meaning eludes expression and presence is for ever delayed with supplementary writing:

If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.
You all do know this mantle, I remember
The first time ever Caesar put it on;
'Twas on a summer's evening in his tent,
That day he overcame the Nervii …


Where there's a will, in the phallogocentric text of William Shakespeare, there is always a way for power to make its own, which it does by feigning that its ‘Will will fulfil’ desire, ‘Ay, fill it full with wills’ (Sonnet 136). For though the people enter chanting. ‘We will be satisfied: let us be satisfied’ (III.ii.1), plenitude—the satisfaction of ‘what you will’—is for ever referred, the puns insinuate, to other kinds of ‘will’, as one textual signifier displaces another. In the Forum, therefore, the story Antony reads from Caesar's toga typifies all writing, in its evasion of the Crowd's desires. It illustrates the Derridean proposition that ‘the meaning of meaning is infinite implication, the indefinite referral of signifier to signifier … which gives meaning no respite, no rest, but engages in its own economy so that it always signifies again.’25 As grotesque as a Metaphysical poem on Christ's winding-sheet, Antony's exposition textualises the cloak to open up its rips to his own meaning: ‘Look, in this place ran Cassius’ dagger through; / See what a rent the envious Casca made; / Through this, the well-beloved Brutus stabb'd …’ (ll. 175-7). So, if Caesar's robe is the sheet on which his assassins wrote, Antony is a true deconstructionist in unravelling the seams of their rhetorical contradictions: ‘For Brutus … was Caesar's angel. … This was the most unkindest cut of all’ (ll. 182-4). As he rescripts the part he is given, Antony thereby folds the parliamentarians' rhetoric inside out, throwing history into doubt and plunging meaning into a polysemous riot that is mimicked by the Citizens, to substantiate that at the point where text and body fuse, discourse and power are one. Caesar had offered his murderers wine on the Ides of March. Served up by Antony, his carved flesh becomes, with cannibalistic literalism, the sacrament of a carnival fraternity of blood:

                                                                                          Look you here,
Here he is himself, married, as you see, with traitors.
FIRST Plebeian
O piteous spectacle!
SECOND Plebeian
O noble Caesar!
THIRD Plebeian
O woeful day!
FOURTH Plebeian
O traitors! villains!
FIRST Plebeian
O most bloody sight!
SECOND Plebeian
We will be revenged.
Revenge! About! Seek! Burn! Fire! Kill! Slay!

(ll. 197-205)

If the words of the dead are tongued with fire, in Christian hermeneutics, beyond the language of the living, the writing etched in Caesar's flesh is more powerful than any speech, we see, precisely because its meaning exceeds whatever its authors intended. Writing, Antony demonstrates, is language at its most carnivalesque and delinquent, because, in the Derridean phrase, it is orphaned and taken from the supervision of its parent; as the sum of Caesar's codicils, when they are read, is so much greater than their trivial parts:

Here is the will, and under Caesar's seal.
To every Roman citizen he gives,
To every several man, seventy-five drachmas.
SECOND Plebeian
Most noble Caesar! We'll revenge his death.
THIRD Plebeian
O royal Caesar!
Hear me with patience.
Peace, ho!
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.


Power cuts its own way in Shakespearean tragedy by appropriating the radical subversiveness of carnival, and Julius Caesar seems to meditate upon its participation in this process. So, Antony's chicanery as he slips from text (the will), to culture (the mantle), to body (the historical subject, Caesar), has the vertiginous effect of presenting everything as a representation. To this extent, a will signed and sealed like Caesar's merely exemplifies the irresponsibility of all signs, since no matter how it is drafted, it can always be rewritten, as Antony very rapidly explains in the next scene: ‘Fetch the will hither, and we shall determine / How to cut off some charge in legacies’ (IV.i.8-9). Thus, the endowments Caesar intended for the people fund Antony's war; and the redrafting of the will instances how every text is vulnerable to a stronger reading, regardless of authorial intention. Whether or not the testator wrote it as such an incitement, Antony's cooption and cancellation of Caesar's will triumphs over Brutus's oratory. So, as it marshals the Crowd to serve its counter-revolution, and lets ‘Mischief’ take what course it will (III.ii.261-2), Caesarism works through a system of provocation and license that exactly parallels the dividing practices of early modern London. Partitioned in the suburb on the river's further side, popular desire will henceforth be instigated and exploited in the interests of the rulers: ‘We'll burn the body. … And with the brands fire the traitors' houses. … Go fetch fire’ (ll. 255-8). By such means the incendiary torches of Shrovetide and Midsummer would be transformed into the flambeaux of the Lord Mayor's Show and the bonfires of Hallowe'en stolen to mark Stuart deliverance from the Gunpowder Plot. Caesar's will offers the British state a blueprint for the deflection of the vox populi towards the institution of monarchy, for the liberty of the Bankside would indeed provide the conduit through which power would recreate itself by regulating the ‘common pleasures’ of Londoners in the impending age of mass consumption.

On the dais a decomposing corpse lies ‘smell(ing) above the earth … groaning for burial’ (III.i.274-5), while the figure of authority pronounces from ‘the public chair’ (III.ii.64) on the meaning of its lacerations. From the ritual of hieromancy on the day of the assassination, when ‘Plucking the entrails of an offering forth’, the augurers ‘could not find a heart within the beast’ (II.ii.39-40), to the consignment of the remains of Brutus to the pyre (V.v.55), this is a play fixated with meat, and its affinity with the art of divination is constantly invoked. Prophecy from entrails may be primitive exegesis, we infer, but its principle extends to every interpretation: power goes not to those who merely carve the carcass as ‘a dish fit for the gods’ (II.i.173), but to the one who ascends ‘the pulpit’ (III.i.250) to bid a textual farewell to the flesh: carne vale. Carnival, we are reminded, was the season of the anatomy lecture in an age without refrigeration, and the punitive spectacle of a criminal executed and dismembered by officers of the state to objectify a moral lesson is a juridical process that furnishes this mise-en-scène.26 The division of labour between those who knife Caesar's body and the orator who explicates their inscription installs Antony, indeed, in a professorial role. It may be chance that the best preserved Renaissance playhouse is the Anatomy Theatre of 1594 at Padua; but this is a scene that suggests that the Elizabethan stage shared with its rival a fascination with cutting open bodies to observe the hearts or ‘spirit of men’ within (II.i.168). For the corpse exhibited by Antony stands in the same relation to subjectivity as the cadaver in Rembrandt's painting of The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp. It is the material ‘earth’ (III.i.254) on which bourgeois ideology will write its meaning, inscribing a discourse of morality and reason on a scene of lust and blood that ‘else were a savage spectacle’ (l. 223). This is literally how Antony uses the body, when he effaces his presence in the interpellation of the audience as his obedient subjects:

For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,
Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech
To stir men's blood; I only speak right on.
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.


Like Tulp's dissection, Antony's anatomy lesson—to be repeated over the body of Brutus—reproduces the spectacular corporeality of carnival in the service of a new disciplinary order, forcing the corpse to signify ‘that which you yourselves do know’ about what it is to say ‘This was a man!’ (l. 224; V.v.75). And as Antony turns desire in the mob to authoritarian ends, this is also the manoeuvre of the Shakespearean text, which reworks the ceremonies of an older ritual—‘to execute, to dismember, to eat’—not simply to erase them but, as Barker observes of Rembrandt's picture, ‘to take them over, to appropriate the ancient vengeful motifs and to rearticulate them for its own new purposes’. Text and painting belong to a moment, that is to say, when bourgeois society still has need of the energies of ‘the earlier pageant of sacramental violence’, and when its ‘image fashions an aesthetic which is rationalistic, classical, realistic, but one to which the iconography of a previous mode of representation is not completely alien’. As Barker explains, ‘if it continues to evoke the signs of a punitive corporeality’, bourgeois representation ‘also aims to draw off and reorganise the charge of these potent residues, and to invest them, transformed’, in the name of the rational spirit of capitalism, ‘which will soon free itself entirely from the old body, even if it trades at first on the mystique and terror of that abandoned materiality’.27 By syphoning the subversiveness of popular festivity in the representation of a deflected and contained rebellion, the Shakespearean text thus anticipates the counter-revolution of the Cromwellian Commonwealth, and faithfully enacts the tactics of the Roman Lupercalia to ‘stir up servants to an act of rage’ the better to police them. Located on the threshold of a century of revolutionary upheaval, Julius Caesar is the image of bourgeois ascendency as ‘necessary, and not envious’ (II.i.178), separated from popular and sectarian movements, and the natural issue of ‘a general honest thought’—as Antony orates over the ashes of Brutus—‘and common good to all’ (V.v.71-2).

Julius Caesar is the representation of the seventeenth-century urban world turned upside down to be restored, where citizens' houses are set alight by the mob in order that property values should be upheld. The question it seems to address by this Shroving ritual is the one that would become, according to Christopher Hill, the crucial dilemma of the Commonwealth, posed eventually by a pamphleteer of 1660: ‘Can you at once suppress the sectaries and keep out the King?’28 Because it arises from a historical juncture when the English bourgeoisie was engaged in a reorganisation of the nation-state to effect this end, it is a text that discloses the materiality of power with self-important openness. In particular, this première Globe play reflects candidly on the process whereby hegemony is obtained through the control of discourse, a process in which the inauguration of the playhouse was itself a major intervention. Victory in Julius Caesar goes to those who administer and distribute the access to discourse, and the conspirators lose possession of the initiative in the action from the instant they concede Antony permission to ‘speak in the order of [the] funeral’ (III.i.230-50). Inserting his demagogy into Brutus's idealistic scenario, Antony disrupts the ‘true rites and lawful ceremonies’ of the republic to expedite his counter-coup (l. 241), and secures his domination with the populist ploy of Caesar's will. Censorship, Barker notes, was ‘a constitutive experience’ in the construction of both the bourgeois subject and modern state, and one that predicated the very possibility of bourgeois enunciation.29 This text proclaims that fact when the Cobbler and Carpenter are banished, the Tribunes silenced, the Soothsayer ignored, Artemidorus spurned and Caesar choked by the breath of the Crowd; and underscores it when Antony ‘damns’ his enemies ‘with a spot’ when ‘their names are prick'd on his proscription list’ (IV.i.1-10). The murder by the mob of the poet Cinna for his ‘bad verses’ and mistaken name (III.iii.30-5) only confirms what Brutus and Cassius learn to their cost: that power goes to those who command the materiality of signs.

‘Cicero is dead, / And by that order of proscription’ (IV.iii.178-9): the reign of terror is cruel but decisive in cutting off the cryptic Greek of the great ironist along with his ‘silver hairs’ (I.ii.276; II.i.144). If Caesar falls through being hard of hearing, then Antony's censorship makes him the paragon of a modern prince. As his own spymaster, he sees ‘How covert matters may be best discovered’ (IV.i.46), since his intelligence guarantees that whatever his enemies plan, ‘I am in their bosoms’, he rests assured, ‘and I know / Wherefore they do it’ (V.i.7-8). Shakespeare's hermeneutic drama thus conforms to the analysis of European imperialism by the semiotician Tzvetan Todorov, who in his study of The Conquest of America finds that the Incas and Aztecs fell victim to the Spanish Conquistadors not because of bullets or disease, but through their inferior system of signification, defeated despite their numbers, by Cortez's capacity to decipher their semiotic conduct whilst baffling them with his own codes.30 Likewise, the republicans are defeated in Julius Caesar when they lose control of signs. Quarrelling over the meaning of their own correspondence and at cross-purposes in their reading of the ‘signs of battle’ (V.i.14-24), Brutus and Cassius become deaf even to Homer's textual warning when they hear The Iliad read (IV.iii.129-37), while the words of Caesar that the Romans record when they ‘mark him and write his speeches in their books’ (I.ii.125), come back to haunt the assassins at the end in the shape of the Ghost, which appears the instant Brutus finds ‘the leaf turn'd down’ in his book and opens it to read, presumably, the ultimate avenging text: ‘Veni, vidi, vici’ (IV.iii.251-75). ‘Words before blows’ (V.i.27) is the battle-order in this play, which rehearses the English Revolution by enacting the Gramscian doctrine that the iron fist is preceded by the velvet glove, and that power is first enthroned in pulpits, poetry and plays.

Carnival, Julius Caesar shows us, was never a single, unitary symbolic system in the Renaissance, but a discourse over which constant struggle was waged by competing social groups. It is the pretence of the Shakespearean text, however, that the masquerade comes to an end in bourgeois realism, as Antony concludes the action when he declares all ‘objects, arts, and imitations … out of use and stal'd by other men’ (IV.i.37-8), separating the idleness of drama from the productivity of politics. Thus, the rupture forced by holiday in history would be sealed as the English bourgeoisie effaced its revolutionary past. To make this representation of tragic acquiescence possible, however, the playhouse had been made a site of acrid contestation. The triumph of bourgeois order was achieved only after many interruptions into the Shakespearean space of festive rout. So to grasp the operation of the new theatre as an institution of social segregation it is only necessary to recall those intrusions from outside the building like that which occurred regularly on Shrove Tuesday, according to reports, when players half-way through an ‘excellent tragedy’ were ‘forc'd to undress and put off their tragic habits’ by the holiday crowd, and made to

conclude the day with The Merry Milkmaids. And unless this were done, and the popular humour satisfied (as sometimes it so fortun'd that the players were refractory), the benches, tiles, laths, stones, oranges, apples, nuts, flew about most liberally; and as there were mechanics of all professions there upon these festivals, every one fell to his trade and dissolved the house in an instant, and that made the ruin of a stately fabric.31

The floor of the new playhouse was not yet quite an arena which the dominant ideology could call its own, and excluded or enclosed, the Cobbler and the Carpenter still found means on occasion to deconstruct—or transvalue—the sign system of the imposing ‘house with the thatched roof’.


  1. Quoted in T. S. Dorsch (ed.), Julius Caesar (The Arden Shakespeare) (London, 1955), p. vii.

  2. Order of the Middlesex County Sessions, 1 October 1612; reproduced in E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage (Oxford, 1923), Vol. 4, pp. 340-1.

  3. F. Barker, The Tremulous Private Body: Essays on Subjection (London, 1984), p. 18.

  4. C. Hill, ‘The uses of Sabbatarianism’, Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England (Harmondsworth, 1972), p. 163.

  5. T. Nashe, ‘Pierce Penniless’, The Unfortunate Traveller and Other Works, ed. J. B. Steane (Harmondsworth, 1972), pp. 114-15; Privy Council Minute repr. in Chambers, Elizabethan Stage, Vol. 4, p. 307; L. A. Govett, The King's Book of Sports (repr., London, 1890), p. 30.

  6. P. Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (London, 1978), p. 203. See also B. A. Babcock (ed.), The Reversible World of Carnival: Symbolic inversion in art and society (Ithaca, NY, 1978).

  7. Chambers, Elizabethan Stage, Vol. 1, pp. 264-5.

  8. P. Clark, The European Crisis of the 1590s: Essays in Comparative History (London, 1985), p. 54.

  9. M. Foucault, ‘The order of discourse’, trans. I. McLeod, in R. Young (ed.), Untying the Text: A Post-structuralist Reader (London, 1981), pp. 52-3.

  10. R. E. McGraw, Encyclopaedia of Medical History (London, 1985), p. 138.

  11. A. L. Beier, Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in England, 1560-1640 (London, 1985). For Platter's comment, see p. 164.

  12. M. Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. A. Sheridan (Harmondsworth, 1979). p. 221; M. Bristol, Carnival and Theatre: Plebeian Culture and the Structure of Authority in Renaissance England (New York and London, 1989), passim; U. Eco, ‘The frames of comic freedom’, in T. Sebeok (ed.), Carnival! (New York, 1984), p. 3. See also M. Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World, trans. H. Iswolsky (Bloomington, Ind., 1984). Nashe, ‘Pierce Penniless’, p. 115.

  13. S. Mullaney, The Place of the Stage: License, Play and Power in Renaissance England (Chicago, 1988), pp. 43-4.

  14. Quoted in C. Norris, ‘Post-structuralist Shakespeare: text and ideology’, in J. Drakakis (ed.), Alternative Shakespeares (London, 1985), p. 50.

  15. T. Dekker, The Shoemaker's Holiday, ed. A. Parr (London, 1990), scene 17:ll.45-51.

  16. Ibid., p. xv.

  17. S. Freud, Civilisation and its Discontents, trans. J. Rivere, ed. J. Strachey (London, 1979), p. 7; S. Zweig, quoted in F. Heer, ‘Freud, the Viennese Jew’, trans. W. A. Littlewood, in J. Miller (ed.), Freud: The Man, his World, his Influence (London, 1972), p. 11.

  18. J. Stow, The Survey of London, ed. H. B. Wheatley and V. Pearl (London, 1987), p. 15.

  19. See especially J. Tambling, Confession: Sexuality, Sin, and the Subject (Manchester, 1990), p. 84.

  20. N. Zemon Davis, ‘The reasons of misrule’, in Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Oxford, 1987), pp. 97-123.

  21. R. Herrick, The Poems of Robert Herrick, ed. L. C. Martin (Oxford, 1965), p. 5; C. Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution (Harmondsworth, 1975), pp. 353-4.

  22. A. Barton, Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play (Harmondsworth, 1967), p. 141.

  23. J. Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries (Brighton, 1984); S. Greenblatt, ‘Invisible bullets: Renaissance authority and its subversion: Henry IV and Henry V’, in J. Dollimore and A. Sinfield (eds), Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism (Manchester, 1985), p. 33; C. Tourneur, The Revenger's Tragedy, ed. R. A. Foakes (London, 1966), V.i.181.

  24. E. Le Roy Ladurie, Carnival at Romans: A People's Uprising in Romans, 1579-1580 (Harmondsworth, 1981), pp. 192-215; for cannibalistic symbolism, see, pp. 173 and 198.

  25. R. Harland, Superstructuralism: The Philosophy of Structuralism and Post-structuralism (London, 1987), p. 135.

  26. See especially W. S. Hecksher, Rembrandt's ‘Anatomy of Dr. Nicolaas Tulp’: An Iconological Study (New York, 1958), pp. 97-106. For an authoritative discussion, see also J. Sawday, ‘The fate of Marsyas: Dissecting the Renaissance body’, in L. Gent and N. Llewellyn (eds), Renaissance Bodies: The Human Figure in English Culture, c. 1540-1660 (London, 1990), pp. 111-35.

  27. Barker, Tremulous Private Body, p. 76.

  28. Hill, The World Turned Upside Down (1975), p. 347.

  29. Barker, Tremulous Private Body, p. 51.

  30. T. Todorov, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other (New York, 1984).

  31. E. Gayton, ‘Festivous notes upon Don Quixote’ (London, 1654), quoted in Chambers, Elizabethan Stage, Vol. 1, p. 265.

Robin Headlam Wells (essay date 2002)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6433

SOURCE: Wells, Robin Headlam. “Julius Caesar, Machiavelli, and the Uses of History.” Shakespeare Survey 55 (2002): 209-18.

[In the following essay, Wells claims that in Julius Caesar Shakespeare depicted a Machiavellian view of politics and history.]

Why did Shakespeare use stories from the Graeco-Roman world? Machiavelli went to Roman history because he believed that Livy's narratives provided political lessons that could be applied to the modern world. It has traditionally been supposed that Shakespeare dramatized stories from Plutarch and other historians for similar reasons. For the new ‘politic’ historiographers, and, it used to be generally assumed, for Shakespeare as well, the importance of ancient history lay in its ability to illuminate modern events.1 In recent years these assumptions have been challenged by materialist and postmodern scholars who have argued that the supposedly essentialist view of humanity underpinning this rational historiography is an invention of pre-theoretical literary scholarship. Shakespeare, it is claimed, was a precursor of our own disillusioned postmodern view of ‘man’ and history. Julius Caesar certainly suggests that Shakespeare took a sceptical view of politics. But evidence in the play in support of the claim that he shared the anti-humanist theories of the postmodern historiographers he is said to anticipate is less strong.


In Radical Tragedy Jonathan Dollimore claims that Machiavelli was an anti-essentialist.2 This could hardly be further from the truth. Machiavelli believed that if the past contains a lesson for the present it is because human nature is fundamentally the same in all ages. Informing his pragmatic view of history was a belief in human universals. Both in The Prince and in the Discourses we repeatedly find such phrases as these: ‘men almost always follow in the footsteps of others, imitation being a leading principle of human nature’; ‘men generally … are ungrateful, fickle, feigners and dissemblers’; ‘men never do good unless necessity drives them to it’; ‘nature has so constituted men that …’; ‘the human mind is perpetually …’; and so forth.3 By observing the way men behaved in the past and noting the consequences of their actions you could predict what outcome similar actions might have in the present. In the Discourses Machiavelli wrote: ‘If the present be compared with the remote past, it is easily seen that in all cities and in all peoples there are the same desires and the same passions as there always were. So that, if one examines with diligence the past, it is easy to foresee the future of any commonwealth, and to apply those remedies that were used of old’ (p. 302).

Was Machiavelli's rational historiography fatally flawed by its essentialist premises? Postmodern historiographers are sceptical about the political value of history. If there is no transhistorical essence of human nature and no universal passions and follies, history can have limited meaning for the present. In an essay on Foucault Hayden White suggests that, insofar as Foucault rejected all the conventional categories of historical description and explanation, he could best be described as an ‘anti-historian’. ‘Foucault,’ he explains, ‘writes “history” in order to destroy it.’ Unlike the traditional historian, who sought to understand the past and to make it intelligible to his readers, partly by revealing the sequence of cause and effect in the unfolding of events, and partly by appealing to those constant elements in human nature that survive from one age to another, Foucault wanted to disrupt our false sense of coherence and defamiliarise the past. Because there is in reality no continuity in history, and no universal humanitas, the past can have no more meaning for us than a theatre of the absurd. Foucault, writes White, ‘sought to show how we are isolated within our peculiar modalities of experience, so much so that we could not hope to find analogues and models for the solution of the problems facing us, and thereby to enlighten us to the peculiar elements in our present situation’. White argued that, insofar as Foucault tried to show how all systems of thought are ‘little more than terminological formalisations of poetic closures with the world of words, rather than with the “things” they purport to represent and explain’, he had more in common with the poet than the traditional historian.4

Over the past two decades it has been widely assumed that Shakespeare too was an anti-essentialist. It is said that, like most leading intellectuals of the time, he recognized that human nature, with its apparently unique sense of interiority and self-determination, was merely an illusory effect of discourse; in reality ‘man’ was a radically decentred being with no universal characteristics and no inner being. The historical moment that gave birth to the self was the emergence of a bourgeois capitalist economy at the beginning of the early-modern period. Though some postmodernists are willing to cede limited powers of agency, it is still widely accepted that it is ‘incorrect’, as Dollimore puts it, to read the period ‘through the grid of an essentialist humanism’.5 If this argument is right it should follow that for Shakespeare history would have had little more meaning than it did for Foucault: no attempt to understand the past and relate it to our own age could be anything more than a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.


If Shakespeare did anticipate Foucault's belief that it is pointless looking to history for instructive analogues of modern events, it is puzzling that he should have built into his play so many coded allusions to his own world. The parallels between Shakespeare's Rome and Elizabethan England are well known.6 With its ailing, autocratic ruler toppled by a Machiavellian rebel who looks back to an heroic age when men were more warlike (1.3.80-4), and its talk of a group of ‘noblest-minded’ aristocrats (121) ‘factious for redress of [personal] griefs’ (117),7Julius Caesar would inevitably have put contemporary audiences in mind of the beliefs and ideals of the Sidney-Essex alliance. Essex's querulous Apologie—written at a time when rivalry between the two main factions in the Privy Council was at crisis point8—was published only just before Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar. Like Cassius, Essex was a man with a grievance.9 He surrounded himself with discontented nobles who shared his desire to remove what seemed to him a tyrannical ruler and reform government. His watchword was honour. And that meant a willingness to use violence in defence of personal or national reputation. In a pamphlet in praise of the aristocratic leaders of the Essex faction Gervase Markham described honour as ‘the food of every great spirit, and the very god which creates in high minds Heroical actions’.10 For Cassius too honour is a word that has talismanic significance. ‘Honour is the subject of my story,’ he tells Brutus (1.2.94).

These parallels are familiar to modern scholars. If Shakespeare takes care to avoid committing himself to one side or the other, that is understandable. Essex was a figure of whom, in Markham's words, ‘it behove[d] every man to be careful how to write’.11 But it has not been noticed that the parallels go further than a general resemblance between the political situation of Rome before Caesar's assassination and London in 1598/9. Shakespeare makes verbal allusion to the militant-Protestant faction and their values. For Essex's supporters, words like ‘heroic’, ‘virtuous’ and ‘honourable’, were a code that signalled commitment to an aggressively militarist political agenda.12 The counterpart of these heroic epithets was a cluster of words to do with sleep, dreams, enchantment and idleness. ‘Sleep’ was widely used by members of the militant-Protestant faction as a metaphor for the false sense of security which they believed was blinding the government to political dangers at home and abroad.13 In Julius Caesar there is much talk of heroic action. Cassius is an admirer of ‘any bold or noble enterprise’ (1.2.298) and incites his supporters to ‘undergo with me an enterprise / Of honourable-dangerous consequence’ (1.3.122-3); Ligarius welcomes an ‘exploit worthy the name of honour’ (2.1.316). But the anonymous letter that Lucius finds in the window speaks of the need for Brutus to rouse himself from the ‘sleep’ of inaction: ‘Brutus, thou sleep'st. Awake, and see thyself. / Shall Rome, et cetera? Speak, strike, redress’. Brutus then rereads the letter's key phrase: ‘thou sleep'st. Awake’ (2.1.46-8).14 It is the combination of imagery of ‘bloody, fiery, and most terrible’ deeds (1.3.129) on the one hand, and the exhortation to awake from the sleep of ‘security’ (2.3.7) on the other that makes these allusions so pointed.

Such topical allusions would be meaningless if we were not expected to see analogies between the final years of republican Rome and fin-de-siècle England. But what are we meant to deduce from them? As many critics have pointed out, it is impossible to say for certain whether Shakespeare is for or against Caesar. ‘After all the clear balancing of this against that, and for all the power of the figures on stage to move us,’ writes David Daniell in his recent Arden edition of the play, ‘there comes into view no alternative basis of authority at all, either divine or popular. There is only possession of power, the politics of the school playground’.15 In the last century a long line of critics going back to A. P. Rossiter in the 1950s emphasised the dialectical nature of Shakespeare's plays. For critics like Rabkin, Elton, McElroy, Jones and Grudin, they were best seen as, in W. R. Elton's words, ‘a dialect of ironies and ambivalences, avoiding in its complex movement and dialogue the simplification of direct statement and reductive resolution’.16 But if, as Daniell says, Shakespeare ‘does not endorse anyone’ (p. 34), what are we expected to learn from this dramatization of the most momentous event in Roman history? That Republican politics is simply a power game from which we can deduce nothing of value? That history has no more to offer than a poet's fiction? This would be a truly Foucauldian view of history and literature.

The fact that Shakespeare is careful to avoid taking sides doesn't mean that the play has no view to offer on the historical event it dramatizes. One of the central ironies of Julius Caesar is the fact that an action designed to deflect a feared event hastens that very outcome.17 There is a similar structural irony in Macbeth. By attempting to avert destiny, Macbeth himself is instrumental in ensuring that the ancient prophecy of a re-united kingdom would be realized.18 In Julius Caesar too the fulfilment of prophecy is accelerated by an action that is intended to forestall it. Despite his republican sympathies, Plutarch considered Caesar to be a providential figure ‘whom God had ordeyned of special grace to be Governor of the Empire of Rome, and to set all things againe at quiet stay, the which required the counsell and authoritie of an absolute Prince’.19 Shakespeare doesn't refer in Julius Caesar to the ‘time of universal peace’ (Antony and Cleopatra 4.6.4) that was to follow the third stage of Rome's civil wars. Nor is there any proof that the many supernatural signs in the play apparently betokening divine displeasure are anything more than coincidence. However, contemporary audiences would have known perfectly well that Octavius' supremacy and the transformation of Rome into a dictatorship was brought forward by Caesar's murder. Instead of averting these events, the assassination hastened them.

On the question of whether or not there is a ‘providence of some high powers / That govern us below’ (5.1.106-7) the play is non-commital. But looked at from a purely pragmatic point of view there is an inescapable irony in the fact that the immediate consequence of an action carried out in the name of ‘Liberty, freedom, and enfranchisement!’ (3.1.80) is ‘Domestic fury and fierce civil strife’ (3.1.266), followed by the deaths of all the conspirators. Cassius imagines the celebratory re-enactment of their ‘lofty scene’ (3.1.113) in future times. Has he read no history? Doesn't he know that conspiracies almost always end in disaster? ‘There have been many conspiracies, but history has shown that few have succeeded’, wrote Machiavelli in The Prince (p. 65). Machiavelli was not a monarchist defending the divine right of hereditary rulers. He was simply pointing out what works and what doesn't work in politics. The Prince considers the consequences of conspiracies in principalities; the Discourses looks at them from a republican point of view. But the message is the same: ‘there is … no enterprise … more dangerous or more rash than is this … those [who involve themselves in conspiracies] usually bring disaster both upon themselves and upon their country’ (Discourses, pp. 470-1). Plutarch dwells on the brutality of the way in which Caesar was ‘hacked and mangeled amonge them, as a wilde beaste taken of hunters’.20 But Machiavelli, also writing from a republican point of view, makes no appeal to the emotions, and no reference to heaven's will. His interest in the subject is pragmatic: conspiracies seldom achieve their intended effect. Describing how Caesar's death was avenged, he simply says: ‘of the conspirators, after they had been driven out of Rome, one and all were killed at various times and in various places’ (Discourses, p. 487).

Machiavelli also considers the consequences of unconstitutional action in his discussion of the Coriolanus story. As we know from Plutarch, Coriolanus was not noted for his diplomacy. So incensed were the plebeians by his contempt for them that, had it not been for the intervention of the tribunes, and their insistence that he appear before the senate, Coriolanus would probably have been murdered by the mob. But crisis was avoided because there was a legal outlet for public anger. Summing up the significance of these events, Machiavelli wrote:

all should reflect on the evils that might have ensued in the Roman republic had he been tumultuously put to death, for this would have been an act of private vengeance, which would have aroused fear; and fear would have led to defensive action; this to the procuring of partisans; partisans would have meant the formation of factions in the city; and factions would have brought about its downfall.

Thus far Machiavelli might almost have been describing Caesar's murder. But he continues:

As, however, the matter was settled by persons vested with the requisite authority, no opening was provided for the evils that might have resulted had the matter been settled by private authority.

(Discourses, p. 228)

Machiavelli's observations on unconstitutional action had a particular significance for English readers in 1599. Julius Caesar was written and performed while Essex was out of the country. Until news began to filter back to London of the truce that he had been forced to conclude with Tyrone in September 1599, no one could have predicted with certainty the outcome of the earl's mission to suppress the Irish rebellion. Success might lead to a reconciliation with the Queen and the rehabilitation of his own reputation as crusading national hero; failure would in all probability mean the end of his political career, at least while Elizabeth was alive. Given these uncertainties, it is difficult to imagine any intelligent Elizabethan watching a performance of Julius Caesar and not pondering the possible outcomes of a political coup. In his treatise on kingship St Thomas Aquinas wrote: ‘to proceed against the cruelty of tyrants is an action to be undertaken, not through the private presumption of a few, but rather by public authority’.21 Was this also Shakespeare's view? In Macbeth he presents us with the paradox of men resorting to extreme violence to restore civilized values. But Julius Caesar appears to confirm one of the central themes of the English history plays. Without giving away its author's political sympathies, it makes it clear that unconstitutional action is all too likely to be followed by ‘Domestic fury and fierce civil strife’.


Had Shakespeare been reading The Prince and the Discourses in 1599? Probably, but not necessarily. Machiavelli was so well known in sixteenth-century England that traces of his ideas in literary works and political treatises are not necessarily a sign of direct debt.22 In The Jew of Malta Marlowe capitalized unashamedly on the popular stereotype of the cunning schemer who takes a malicious delight in the spectacle of his own cruelty. Julius Caesar is Machiavellian in a different sense. Though Cassius has elements of the Machiavel of popular myth and uses systematic deception to realise his personal ambitions, he has little in common with Marlowe's buffoonish villain. Shakespeare's 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.23

Shakespeare's Brutus is a man who prides himself on his own integrity. ‘Believe me for mine honour, and have respect to mine honour, that you may believe’, he tells the plebeians at Caesar's funeral (3.2.14-16). During one of the childish arguments that break out on both sides after the assassination, Cassius complains that Brutus has done him wrong. Brutus replies that he would never wrong an enemy, much less a friend: ‘Judge me, you gods: wrong I mine enemies? / And if not so, how should I wrong a brother?’ (4.2.38-9). In response to Cassius' angry words later in the same scene he tells him that such threats mean nothing to him: ‘I am armed so strong in honesty / That they pass by me as the idle wind’ (122-3). Brutus believes that integrity is the only true guide to conduct: if you display honesty in all your actions you will be repaid in kind. In the moving final scene of the play he tells his audience: ‘Countrymen, / My heart doth joy that yet in all my life / I found no man but he was true to me’ (5.5.33-5). These are generous words and they help to explain why Brutus is regarded by friends and enemies alike as ‘the noblest Roman of them all’ (67). But noble as his intention may be, what Brutus is saying simply isn't true. Throughout the play he has been surrounded by deceivers. Indeed, though Cassius admires his honesty, he knows that not even Brutus himself is incorruptible:

Well, Brutus, thou art noble; yet I see
Thy honourable mettle may be wrought
From that it is disposed. Therefore it is meet
That noble minds keep ever with their likes;
For who so firm that cannot be seduced?


Cassius is not a likeable character. But he is a much shrewder judge of human nature than Brutus is. In the space of two short scenes we see the truth of that judgement as Brutus allows himself to be persuaded that he must betray the man who loves him (1.2.313). But though Brutus speaks of the ‘even virtue’ of the rebel cause (2.1.132) as justification for the deception he has always claimed he is above, the imagery he uses tells another story:

                                                                                                                        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.


It is a measure of the confusion in Brutus' mind that he should tell Cassius that those engaged in what he himself describes as a ‘monstrous’ act of political treachery need no ‘other oath / Than honesty to honesty engaged’ (2.1.125-6). Later he tells his fellow conspirators they must disguise their true intention and act their parts with ‘untired spirits and formal constancy’ (223-6). That Cassius should urge his friends to act like ‘true Romans’ (222) is not out of character: as a Machiavel he has no scruples about using trickery to achieve his political ends. But Brutus has always proclaimed his belief in honesty as the paramount value in public life. For such a man to represent unswerving commitment to treachery as ‘formal constancy’ is either hypocrisy or self-deception. What Brutus says in soliloquy suggests the latter. In a kind of Freudian slip he uses the traditional simile of political rebellion (compare Sidney's Astrophil and Stella, no. 5) to describe to himself his own mental confusion:

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 counsel, and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.


But it is not just self-deception that Brutus is guilty of. A Machiavel would probably say that his greatest crime is his political naivety. Whether or not Brutus should have listened to Cassius' warning about Caesar's ambitions is a matter of opinion: a contemporary monarchist would probably say he was wrong; a republican might feel that he was right. What is indefensible, from whichever position you view his actions, is the credulity he shows in the decisions he makes after the assassination. His first mistake is to take Antony's offers of friendship at face value and allow him to speak at Caesar's funeral. His second is to suppose that the plebeians can be trusted to make responsible judgements based on reason. Knowing how easily swayed the plebeians are, Cassius is horrified at the prospect of so consummate a politician as Antony being allowed to address them (3.1.234-7). But Brutus is determined to be fair and honest with the enemy he has just created. The result is summed up in the short symbolic scene that follows Antony's oration. The murder of Cinna is a powerful piece of stage symbolism. Rome is now controlled by the mob. It has become a tyranny.

Tom McAlindon has recently argued that in the English history plays Machiavellian deception never works to the benefit of the state; Shakespeare, he claims, endorses the humanist belief in truth as the only basis of justice and social order.24 In an ideal world where ‘noble minds keep ever with their likes’ (1.2.311), politicians would no doubt be able to dispense with any ‘other oath / Than honesty to honesty engaged’ and rely on mutual trust. But the world of Julius Caesar is far removed from that ideal. It is a world in which patricians employ systematic treachery, and plebeians are incapable of rational judgement. In such a world trust in the integrity of one's fellow politicians is the height of naivety.


If Julius Caesar is thoroughly Machiavellian in its disillusioned view of politics, so too is it in its view of history. As many critics have noted, the play seems to be preoccupied with questions of meaning, interpretation and judgement.25 A problem that occupies the minds of most of the major actors in this pivotal episode in Roman history is that of unnatural phenomena. Are these events a sign of divine displeasure at sacrilegious acts? Or are the gods indifferent to human affairs? Though Cassius and Caesar both change their minds on this question (1.3.61-71; 2.1.195-7; 5.1.76-8), we are no nearer to a definitive answer at the end of the play than we were at the beginning. The disasters that befall Rome after the assassination certainly make the unnatural events reported in the play look like ‘instruments of fear and warning’ (1.3.70). But since the gods themselves make no appearance, we cannot know whether they were warning men against Caesar's ambition or Cassius' planned coup, or indeed whether they exist at all. Similarly with Calpurnia's dream: though her own interpretation seems to be borne out by events, and that of Decius exposed as intentionally misleading, there is no proven connection between the dream and the events it appears to prophesy. Cicero (Shakespeare's character) claims that, when it comes to interpreting omens, ‘men may construe things after their fashion / Clean from the purpose of the things themselves’ (1.3.34-5). This is to suppose that, given the right information, it should be possible to arrive at a correct answer. But the play does not give us this information; it offers us no way of determining which interpretation is correct. In the absence of any certainties, the ‘true cause’ (1.3.62) of these portents can never be more than speculation and opinion. Is Shakespeare saying that the same is true of history, and that in the absence of determinate facts one interpretation has as much value as another? Is history, like poetry, merely representation? The play does not support this view.

In 2.1 there is a short episode that is striking in its seeming pointlessness. At the beginning of the scene Shakespeare gives us a marvellously convincing picture of an honest man wrestling with his conscience as he ponders the problem of whether or not to take action against a politician he thinks may become a tyrant. Then the conspirators arrive. The atmosphere is tense. Cassius draws Brutus aside. As they whisper together, Casca, Cinna and Decius talk amongst themselves. Since they are about to embark on an action that will transform Rome, you might expect them to reassure each other of the justice of their cause, or perhaps to reaffirm their resolve, or at least to run through their plans. But they talk of none of these things. Instead they argue about something completely inconsequential. Peering out at the night sky Decius says ‘Here lies the east. Doth not the day break here?’ Casca says bluntly, ‘No’. Cinna joins in: ‘O pardon, sir, it doth; and yon grey lines / That fret the clouds are messengers of day’. Casca replies:

You shall confess that you are both deceived.
(He points his sword)
Here, as I point my sword, the sun arises.


You could explain the scene in psychological terms—three men showing the pressure they are under by quarrelling about trivia. But it's more than just a piece of psychological realism. The episode forms part of a pattern of opinion and counter-opinion that we have already glimpsed in Act 1. However, this dispute is quite different from the discussion about the significance of omens. The latter is a question of belief; the former is about facts. One is fluid and open ended; the other is determinate. It is true that Decius and Casca interpret the signs in the night sky in different ways. But that doesn't mean that the points of the compass are a matter of opinion. Either Casca is right or he is not, and no amount of debate can alter the fact. Sunrise will soon show who interpreted the signs correctly. Insignificant in itself, the dispute anticipates the motif of conflicting evidence and misinterpretation in the last two acts.

After their second quarrel (during which Cassius discovers that he has grievously misjudged Brutus), the two men receive conflicting reports of the actions of the Antony-Octavius alliance (4.2.225-30). They then discuss tactics (248-77). Brutus proposes that they march on the enemy immediately. Cassius disagrees. Brutus tells him they must cooperate with fortune when she is clearly working to their advantage (‘There is a tide in the affairs of men’) or suffer the consequences. Cassius reluctantly accepts Brutus' plan. But his misgivings are well founded. Once more Brutus has misjudged the situation. An immediate infantry attack is exactly what Octavius had hoped for: by initiating the engagement the enemy has sacrificed the advantage of higher ground (5.1.1-3).

Antony and Octavius too squabble about tactics: ‘You said the enemy would not come down, / But keep the hills and upper regions. / It proves not so,’ (5.1.2-4) Octavius tells Antony. ‘Tut, I am in their bosoms, and I know / Wherefore they do it’ replies Antony irritably (7-8). When Brutus and Cassius join them for a military conference, the two sides quarrel with each other. Only Octavius remains calm, coolly warning his enemies that he will never rest until every one of Caesar's wounds has been avenged. Once the battle of Philippi is under way, it is, contrary to Brutus' belief, misjudgement rather than fortune that determines the course of events. Believing that Titinius has been captured and that their situation is hopeless, Cassius falls on his sword. No sooner is he dead than Titinius enters wearing a wreath of victory. When he and Messala find Cassius' body, Messala comments on the irony of their predicament:

Mistrust of good success hath done this deed.
O hateful Error, Melancholy's child,
Why dost thou show to the apt thoughts of men
The things that are not?


Titinius shares Messala's sense of the irony of the situation: ‘Why didst thou send me forth, brave Cassius?’ he says when Messala has gone, ‘Alas, thou hast misconstrued everything’ (5.3.79; 83).

As with the earlier debates over dreams and omens, and the arguments about political action, there is in Act 5 a mixture of conjecture, misjudgement and factual error. Was Cassius right to argue against taking the initiative at Philippi? There is no way of telling. Allowing the enemy to seek them out might have proved equally disastrous. But when Cassius commits suicide in the belief that their cause was lost, he was misinformed. This was not a matter of opinion. It was simple error. Pindarus was wrong; Titinius had not been captured. By returning repeatedly to the question of evidence and interpretation, Julius Caesar invites us to consider the problem that any historian must deal with in reconstructing the past. How reliable is our knowledge of the facts, and is our interpretation of them justified?

Postmodern historiographers argue that there is no essential difference between fact and interpretation. According to postmodernists Ellen Somekawa and Elizabeth Smith, ‘within whatever rules historians can articulate, all interpretations are equally valid’.26 Shakespeare does not appear to share this view. If, as Messala and Titinius observe, people often misinterpret the evidence, this presupposes that there are discoverable facts and that people are capable of getting them either right or wrong. There is no a priori reason for assuming that any character, major or minor, is voicing Shakespeare's own views. But in this case Messala and Titinius happen to be right. The short-sighted Cassius (5.3.21) was wrongly advised that Titinius had been captured by the enemy. No sooner had he killed himself than the truth was revealed. Titinius had been surrounded by friends, not enemies. This is no more a matter of opinion than the argument in Brutus' house about sunrise. In both cases Error was showing men's thoughts ‘the things that are not’.

Julius Caesar is an imaginative retelling of one of the most important events in Roman history. With its metadramatic concern with truth, interpretation and judgement it is also an invitation to reflect on the value of history. It may be true that, unlike the historian, the poet, in Sidney's words, ‘nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth’.27 Nevertheless, without a clear understanding of the difference between fact and interpretation, history, as Hayden White rightly argues, can have little meaning for the present. In Julius Caesar Shakespeare goes out of his way to emphasize that difference. While carefully avoiding commitment to either a monarchist or a republican point of view, he makes it clear that the story of Cassius' coup offers an instructive analogue for the present. But that analogue would only be meaningful if it told us something about human behaviour. The Earl of Essex's followers admired their leader for his virility; so strong was his sense of masculine pride that he was even prepared to quarrel with his sovereign when honour was at the stake. In a passage that could not help but strike a chord with contemporary readers of Essex's Apologie, Machiavelli warns that, when faced with the potential threat of tyranny, it is usually better to temporise than to risk violent action. If you do act precipitately you are likely to hasten the very evil you are seeking to avoid; the problem, as Essex watchers could see all too well, is that ‘men are by nature inclined to look with favour … on enterprises which seem to have in them a certain virility’.28 Without an understanding of those human universals which Machiavelli comes back to time and again in his political writings, we would indeed be, as White puts it, ‘isolated within our peculiar modalities of experience’. Though it has been fashionable for some two decades to claim that most leading intellectuals of the time were radical anti-essentialists, the historical evidence points overwhelmingly in the opposite direction. Major and minor writers in this period are united in their belief in a transhistorical core of human nature, one of whose defining features is something that poets and dramatists refer to as ‘the inward self’.29 It is this essentialist view of humanity that forms the basis of their view of history.


  1. For discussion of the influence of the new ‘politic’ historiography in early modern England see F. J. Levy, Tudor Historical Thought (San Marino, 1967), pp. 237-85; Arthur B. Ferguson, Clio Unbound: Perception of the Social and Cultural Past in Renaissance England (Durham, NC, 1979), pp. 3-27.

  2. Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries (Brighton, 1984), pp. 170-1.

  3. The Prince, ed. Quentin Skinner and Russell Price (Cambridge, 1988), pp. 19, 59; The Discourses of Niccolò Machiavelli, ed. and trans. Leslie J. Walker, 2 vols. (London, 1950), 1. 217, 295, 356.

  4. ‘Foucault Decoded: Notes from Underground’, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore, 1985), pp. 239, 234, 257, 259. ‘Foucault Decoded’ was first published in History and Theory, 12 (1973) (my italics).

  5. Dollimore, Radical Tragedy, p. 155.

  6. See for example Tom McAlindon, Shakespeare's Tragic Cosmos (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 76-8; David Daniell, ed., Julius Caesar, The Arden Shakespeare (Walton-on-Thames, 1998), pp. 23-4.

  7. Quotations from Shakespeare are from The Complete Works, ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford, 1986).

  8. See Wallace T. MacCaffrey, Elizabeth I: War and Politics 1588-1603 (Princeton, 1992), pp. 453ff.; see also Wernham, The Making of Elizabethan Foreign Policy, passim; John Guy, Tudor England (Oxford and New York, 1988), pp. 439ff; Penry Williams, The Later Tudors: England 1547-1603. The New Oxford History of England (Oxford, 1995), p. 364.

  9. Underlying Essex's quarrel with Elizabeth was a sense of personal grievance. While he feigned helpless susceptibility to Elizabeth's beauty, in reality he deeply resented being subject to a woman's authority (see Mervyn James, Society, Politics and Culture: Studies in Early Modern England (1978; repr. Cambridge, 1986), p. 444).

  10. Markham, Honour in his Perfection (London, 1624), p. 4.

  11. Ibid., p. 26.

  12. See James, Society, Politics and Culture, pp. 308-415. For discussion of the politically nuanced use of these terms by Shakespeare and his contemporaries see Robin Headlam Wells, Shakespeare on Masculinity (Cambridge, 2000), pp. 7-10 and passim.

  13. Blair Worden, The Sound of Virtue: Philip Sidney's Arcadia and Elizabethan Politics (New Haven and London, 1996), p. 62.

  14. Shakespeare takes the phrase ‘Brutus, thou sleep'st’ from Plutarch. It occurs, in slightly different forms, in the lives both of Brutus and Julius Caesar (Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, trans. Sir Thomas North, 6 vols. (London, 1895-6), 5.63; 6.190).

  15. Julius Caesar, p. 38. See also Robert S. Miola, ‘Julius Caesar and the Tyrannicide Debate’, Renaissance Quarterly 38 (1985), 271-89.

  16. ‘Shakespeare and the Thought of his Age’ (1971), The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies, ed. Stanley Wells (Cambridge, 1986), p. 32. See also Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (1967; repr. Chicago and London, 1984); Bernard McElroy, Shakespeare's Mature Tragedies (Princeton, 1973); Emrys Jones, The Origins of Shakespeare (Oxford, 1977); Robert Grudin, Mighty Opposites: Shakespeare and Renaissance Contrariety (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1979).

  17. Joseph S. M. J. Chang notes that, by joining the conspiracy Brutus ‘incites the civil war which destroys the very Republic he seeks to preserve’ (‘Julius Caesar in the Light of Renaissance Historiography’, Journal of English and Germanic Philology 69 (1970), 63-71; p. 70). However, in taking Brutus' protestations of honesty at face value, Chang does not allow for the fact that Shakespeare may be hinting ironically on Brutus' political naivety. I discuss this question below.

  18. In Poly-Olbion Drayton explains how, by murdering Banquo and causing Fleanch (Shakespeare's Fleance) to flee to Wales, Macbeth was indirectly responsible for bringing about a marriage that would unite the houses of Plantagenet and Tudor. For Fleanch married the daughter of Llewellin, the Prince of Wales. His descendant, Henry VII, married Elizabeth of York, and it was their eldest daughter, Margaret, who married James IV. James VI and I could thus claim both to unite the houses of York and Lancaster, and also to restore the ancient British line. (The Works of Michael Drayton, 5 vols., ed. J. William Hebel (Oxford, 1931-41), 4 (1933), 167).

  19. Plutarch's Lives, 6.237.

  20. Ibid., 5.68.

  21. Thomas Aquinas, On Kingship: To the King of Cyprus, trans. Gerald B. Phelan, revised by I. Th. Eschmann (Toronto, 1949), p. 27.

  22. Although there were no printed English translations of The Discourses and The Prince until 1636 and 1640 respectively, several manuscript translations of both texts were available in Elizabethan England. Printed Italian editions were also in circulation from the 1580s (see Felix Raab, The English Face of Machiavelli: A Changing Interpretation 1500-1700 (London, 1964), p. 53). Raab writes: ‘everything indicates that, at least from the middle 'eighties onwards, Machiavelli was being quite widely read in England and was no longer the sole preserve of “Italianate” Englishmen and their personal contacts’ (p. 53). On Machiavelli's influence in early modern England see also Levy, Tudor Historical Thought, pp. 238-42; Anne Barton, ‘Livy, Machiavelli, and Shakespeare's Coriolanus’, Shakespeare Survey 38 (1985), pp. 115-29; Victoria Kahn, Machiavellian Rhetoric: From the Counter-Reformation to Milton (Princeton, 1994).

  23. Machiavelli wrote: ‘how men live is so different from how they should live that a ruler who does not do what is generally done, but persists in doing what ought to be done, will undermine his power rather than maintain it’ (The Prince, p. 54).

  24. ‘Swearing and forswearing in Shakespeare's Histories: The Playwright as Contra-Machiavel’, Review of English Studies 51 (2000), 208-29.

  25. See for example, Chang, ‘Julius Caesar in the Light of Renaissance Historiography’, 63-71; René E. Fortin, ‘Julius Caesar. An Experiment in Point of View’, Shakespeare Quarterly 19 (1976), 341-7; Robert S. Miola, Shakespeare's Rome (Cambridge, 1983), pp. 76-115.

  26. Ellen Somekawa and Elizabeth A. Smith, ‘Theorizing the Writing of History’, Journal of Social History 22 (1988), 154.

  27. Sir Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry, ed. Geoffrey Shepherd (London, 1965), p. 123.

  28. The Discourses, 1.287.

  29. So deeply rooted in neo-Stoic thought is the distinction between what Claudius calls the ‘exterior’ and the ‘inward man’ (Hamlet, 2.2.6) that it becomes an almost formulaic way of praising integrity. For example, when Sidney cites Aeneas as a model of virtue, he commends Virgil's hero for the control he shows both ‘in his inward self, and … in his outward government’ (An Apology for Poetry, p. 120.). The first scholar to respond to materialism's anti-essentialist Shakespeare with a sustained reading of the plays as encoding a transhistorical view of human nature was Tom McAlindon. See English Renaissance Tragedy (Basingstoke, 1986), pp. 46-8; Shakespeare's Tragic Cosmos (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 21-4, 256-7; ‘Coriolanus: an Essentialist Tragedy’, Review of English Studies 44 (1993), 502-20; ‘Cultural Materialism and the Ethics of Reading: or the Radicalizing of Jacobean Tragedy’, Modern Language Review 90 (1995), 830-46. See also Robin Headlam Wells, Elizabethan Mythologies: Studies in Poetry, Drama and Music (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 11-16; Katharine Eisaman Maus, Inwardness and Theater in the English Renaissance (Chicago, 1995), pp. 1-34.


Julius Caesar (Vol. 74)


Julius Caesar and the Properties of Shakespeare's Globe