Historical Background

Historical Background
In 1599, when Julius Caesar was first performed, Queen Elizabeth I, the Tudor Queen, was in the final years of her 45-year reign (1558–1603). It was a period of history called the “Age of Discovery,” a time of scientific growth, a rebirth of the arts, and exploration of the recently discovered continents of North and South America. Historical plays were popular during Shakespeare’s lifetime and people were eager to learn about worlds other than their own. A play like Julius Caesar taught them about Roman history, and at the same time, provided them with a mirror of their own society—a peacetime monarchy after a hundred years of warfare and before the Civil War that began in 1642.

Elizabeth’s reign was one of the most secure known by the English in hundreds of years. But her throne came under attack from Roman Catholic plots to replace the Protestant monarch with a Catholic. While Shakespeare was writing Julius Caesar, Elizabeth’s own favorite, the Earl of Essex rebelled in 1601, intending to replace the Queen’s Secretary of State, Sir Robert Cecil, with a group of young aristocrats. His plan failed. But even more damaging attacks on the idea of monarchy came from loyal Puritans. Radicals like Peter Wentworth and John Field wanted democracy and called for “liberty, freedom and enfranchisement,” words echoed in Shakespeare’s play.

Like Julius Caesar, Queen Elizabeth had no heirs to follow her on the throne. In...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Rome. Capital of the ancient Roman Empire in which the bulk of the play is set. The various settings within the city used in the play are represented sparsely on stage; most of the Roman scenes are set in outdoor places, particularly public streets. The Elizabethan theater was a nonrealistic theater that operated within a context of narrow stage conventions. Only a small bit of scenery might be used to suggest place; for example, a single bush or shrub might suggest a forest, while a throne might suggest a palace. It was mainly spoken dialogue that identified, described, and specified settings for the audience.

That Shakespeare intended Rome, and by extension the Roman Empire, as an example for Elizabethan England there can be no doubt. Most of the literature of his age, including drama, modeled itself on Roman examples. Even the theaters, their stages, and theatrical presentations were modeled partly on the Roman stages and such ancient dramatic conventions as were known. The Roman Republic was an ideal to most of the educated elite; however, the concept and institutions of such a government seemed beyond them. Roman history and the Latin language were part of the formal English education of that time, and English rhetoricians were fond of likening Elizabethan England to Rome. A goodly portion of Shakespeare’s audiences would have known something about the history of Julius Caesar and would have admired him. Like Elizabeth I, Caesar was charismatic and popular with the people. Caesar’s assassination echoed several conspiracies that Queen Elizabeth fought against during her reign.


*Forum. Great public square in Rome at which Caesar is assassinated by the conspirators. Afterward, Marc Antony delivers a powerful eulogy to Caesar on the steps of the Forum that turns the public mob against the conspirators.


*Sardis. Ancient city in Asia Minor, near what is now Izmir, Turkey, where Brutus and Cassius maintain their military camp, in the civil war following Caesar’s assassination. There, Brutus and Cassius quarrel constantly over trivial matters. Sardis is thus the site at which visible chaos into which the conspiracy falls becomes clear as the conspirators deal with mutual lack of trust, poor planning, and defeat from all sides.


*Philippi. Greek town near the Aegean Sea near which Marc Antony and Octavian (Augustus) defeat Brutus and Cassius in the concluding scenes of the play. Afterward, the downward spiral of Rome halts only when Caesar’s rightful heir ascends to power. Ancient Rome becomes a model for Elizabethan England in which natural order prevails. The play is a lesson for Shakespeare’s audience where the setting of Rome equals their England.

Modern Connections

(Shakespeare for Students)

One of the major issues Julius Caesar deals with is the overthrow of a ruler. In this play, Shakespeare raises the question of whether...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Bloom, Harold, ed. William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” New York: Chelsea House, 1988. Nine essays on various aspects of the play by distinguished Shakespeare critics of the 1970’s and 1980’s, Marjorie Garber’s essay on the significance of dreams and Michael Long’s on the social order are particularly worthwhile.

Bonjour, Adrien. The Structure of “Julius Caesar.” Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press, 1958. Sensitive, illuminating monographic study that sees Julius Caesar as a drama of divided sympathies. Brutus and Caesar are both heroic, both wrong; opposing motives and antithetical themes from the texture of the play as well as a balanced inner structure.

Dean, Leonard F., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Julius Caesar.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968. Informative collection of short articles by leading mid-twentieth century Shakespeare critics. Dean’s introduction gives an overview of earlier criticism. Various articles provide character studies, analyze language, and supply literary-historical background.

Thomas, Vivian. “Julius Caesar.” London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992. Concise study of Julius Caesar that reflects various postmodernist approaches to Shakespeare while also providing a thorough analysis of the play’s stage history, style, and relationship to its principal source, Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. Includes an extensive bibliography.

Traversi, Derek. Shakespeare: The Roman Plays. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1963. Chapter two of this classic study focuses on the moral and political themes of Julius Caesar. Following the text closely and in detail, Traversi probes the interplay of contrasting personalities and motives that generated a political tragedy with universal significance.

Bibliography and Further Reading

*If available, books are linked to Amazon.com

Blits, Jan H. The End of the Republic: Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1993.

Bloom, H. and Golding, W., eds. William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: Modern Critical Intepretations. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

Bradley, Andrew Cecil. Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: Penguin, 1992.

Bullough, Geoffrey. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare: The Roman Plays. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964.

Charney, Maurice. Shakespeare's Roman Plays: The Function of Imagery in the Drama.Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963.

Coles, Blanche. Shakespeare Studies: Julius Caesar. New York: AMS Press, 1969.

Daiches, David. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar. London: Edward Arnold, 1976.

Granville-Barker, Harley. Prefaces to Shakespeare. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963.

Hamer, Mary, ed. Julius Caesar. University Press of Mississippi, 1999.

Kiefer, Frederick. Fortune and Elizabethan Tragedy. San Marino: Huntington Library, 1983.

McCallum, M.W. Shakespeare's Roman Plays and Their Background. New York: Russell & Russell, 1967.

McElroy, Bernard. Shakespeare's Mature Tragedies. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973

Mehl, Dieter. Shakespeare's Tragedies: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Nardo, Don, ed. Readings on Julius Caesar. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999.

Nevo, Ruth. Tragic Form in Shakespeare. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Paris, Bernard. Character As a Subversive Force in Shakespeare: The History and Roman Plays. Hackensack, New Jersey: FDU Press, 1991.

Ribner, Irving. Patterns in Shakespearian Tragedy. London: Methuen, 1969.

Simmons, J. L. Shakespeare's Pagan World: The Roman Tragedies. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1973.

Traversi, Derek. Shakespeare: The Roman Plays. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1963.

Whitaker, V.K. Mirror Up to Nature: The Technique of Shakespeare's Tragedies. San Marino: Huntington Library, 1965.